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"Bird Box": a thrill ride about ordinary humans in extraordinary crisis

On Writing

"Bird Box": a thrill ride about ordinary humans in extraordinary crisis

Stephen H. Provost

Every now and then, a story is so engaging and deftly told that it overcomes the reader’s own personal difficulties with style and renders the so-called “rules” of writing superfluous. Bird Box was one such book for me. Author Josh Malerman delivers a story that kept me interested from start to finish, which is – in the end – the hallmark of a successful novel.

Although he occasionally falls into a clipped voice (especially in the early going), his quick-hitting style is an asset overall. It’s far better than being sucked into an endless quagmire of unnecessary description, and it fits the story perfectly. It allows the author to build suspense throughout without boring the reader – quite a feat in any novel-length endeavor.

There are a lot of things Malerman doesn’t describe in the book, some of which the reader is probably just itching to know. But the fact that he leaves out these descriptions is a master stroke, because it allows the reader to focus on what’s important: the human story about how people cope (or fail to) and interact in a world overrun by paranoia, false hopes and heroic deeds that sometimes succeed but just as often end in tragedy.

 Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.

The premise of Bird Box is ingenious: How do human beings adjust to a world in which opening one’s eyes means near-certain madness? The execution is also first-rate, sometimes in spite of the fact that Malerman breaks the rules - and sometimes because of it.

A writing coach might tell you that Malerman uses variations on the verb “to be” far too much. But it works, and that’s what matters. It amplifies the matter-of-fact narrative, which reflects the crisis situation that pervades the book. This is proof that rules sometimes demand to be broken, when the author does so in service to the book’s mood and plot. It’s to his great credit that Malerman is willing to do so.

The main stylistic problem I had with Bird Box (HarperCollins, 2014) was its reliance on present tense in the two streams of narrative that run through the novel, one present day and the other in the past. For me, it slowed down what was otherwise a tension-filled page-turner of a ride, especially when the writer moved to past tense in the midst of a present-tense section. (None of these moves were wrong, structurally speaking; they just slowed me down a bit.)

Malerman also seems to run short on material for his present-day narrative stream and, as the book goes on, uses it more frequently for flashbacks that aren’t covered in the “past” stream. At times, he does so to provide key information that might not otherwise be available, which is all well and good. In any case, this is a minor quibble and in no way a deal-breaker.

A few questions are left unanswered, such as why some animals go mad and others don't - or why they do so at varying rates, whereas nearly all humans are exposed to the danger that's involved in opening their eyes very early. But this, too, is minor, and not essential to the plot. In fact, Malerman's ability to keep from getting bogged down in the nonessential is part of what makes Bird Box such an engaging read.

In fact, I’m giving this book five stars because it’s so successful in spite of my own personal criticisms. I don’t do that often because, honestly, most authors who use a style I don’t enjoy, such as present-tense narrative, don’t hold my attention beyond the first ten pages. The fact that Malerman was able to hold my interest is testament to his ability as a storyteller and to the success of “Bird Box” as a story about humans in crisis and how they react both to that crisis and one another.

Highly recommended.

Don’t open your eyes.
— Tagline for "Bird Box"