Bird Box depicted the outside world becoming a dangerous place, filled with creatures which drive humans mad when perceived. In this direct sequel, the creatures are still very much here; Malorie and her children, Tom and Olympia, live safely amongst other survivors at a school for the blind. But in Malorie’s visceral opening scene, the madness – and the creatures – break in, and they are forced to flee once more. Ten years on, Malorie has raised the teenaged Tom and Olympia to “live by the fold” (the blindfold) and follow the strict rules which have allowed them to survive so far. The children don’t always agree with her – and neither does the rest of the world.
Although technically it might be possible to read Malorie as a stand-alone novel, I wouldn’t recommend it. So much of its tension and sense of threat comes from an appreciation of Bird Box‘s visceral mayhem (particularly the destruction of the safe house at the hands of the sinister intruder Gary), and that Malorie has only survived by slavish adherence to the “rules” of this narrative universe. The book starts with a terrifying breach of those rules – a blind woman is driven mad, which previously required perception by sight – and Malorie responds by adaptation: she and her children cover their skin with hoodies and gloves to prevent the creatures touching them.
Malerman excels in continually teasing that the reader will learn more about the mysterious creatures. We’re told that they’ve tripled since arriving, and in a particularly horribly suggestive bit of description, “they’re not necessarily taller than they were before… but wider. They take up more space.” Beyond that, the “rules” surrounding the creatures seem uneasily malleable. We’re told there are no recorded instances of a creature forcing a human to look at them, but it’s little comfort when a blind woman can be driven mad, or children are driven to suicide in a totally dark house. The reader is kept off-guard, forced to look for clues about this world and assess the validity of different characters’ perception of its threats.
The first scene is absolutely breakneck, Malerman managing to describe an outbreak of madness as experienced by a blindfolded person: “It’s not difficult to put visual images with the sounds they make. Clawing, scratching. Fingers in eyes and fingers down throats and the cracking of a bone and the tearing of what sounds like a throat.” For large portions of the book, however, we’re firmly inside the characters’ heads, and I couldn’t help finding that this slowed the pace of what was already a rather straightforward narrative. It sometimes felt as if interesting new characters were short-changed in favour of lengthy reminiscences about Malorie’s parents and dead sister. Ron Handy, for instance, who lives alone at a gas station, quietly getting peculiar with isolation (“There’s a particular window in there that I do not like. I’ve covered it two times over, but I just… do not like it”), or Dean who builds and runs a black-sheathed “Blind Train” through territory filled with creatures. This balance does shift towards the second half of the book, however, with the nightmarish depiction of a town which encourages “experiments” in viewing the creatures, a charnel-ground radiating out of it in progressive waves of bodies, and Malorie’s capture and incarceration in a pit, blindfold removed, waiting to interact with a creature.
The novel’s substantial interiority allows Malerman to pose a direct question to the reader. It’s a familiar one from horror and post-apocalyptic fiction: at what price survival? Tom and Olympia both chafe against their rigid upbringing – neatly related to teen pop culture in which parents are “from another planet” – and Tom, in particular, perceives Malorie’s stranglehold on his imagination and experimentation as “abusive”. This is balanced against Malorie’s own point of view, knowing what she does about the risks they face. I couldn’t help making comparisons with our own 2020 preoccupation with rules, face-coverings, and how best to make ourselves “safe” when outside our own homes; certain parts of Malorie’s musings feel eerily prescient when viewed through this lens. She divides people into “safe” and “unsafe” – for the latter, “every decision they make is coming from an unsafe place” – and she’s living in a world in which one such decision can doom the rest of the group, as in more traditional contagion narratives. She constantly struggles with the fact she retains precautions which many (getting “lazy” – we might call it “behavioural fatigue”) have discarded: “She hears a distant question, asked in her own voice, her own head, asking if she was righteous in her staunch safety precautions, the fact that she was often chided for wearing her blindfold indoors. Oh, how the people of this place were offended by her measures. Oh, how it made the others feel as if Malorie thought herself better than them.”
The antagonist in Malorie, however, is not the creatures. Early on, the novel appears to be offering a keenly-observed depiction of paranoia and survivor guilt, one in which Malorie obsesses over Gary – the man who came to the house in Bird Box and invited the housemates to look at the creatures – to the extent she believes he’s orchestrating events to tempt her and the children into leaving their place of safety. He isn’t, but I was disappointed to see the narrative take a revenge/stalker turn to centre the personal malevolence of one particular human over the novel’s wider (more interesting and chaotic) post-apocalyptic world. A similar frustration might apply if you expected to learn anything concrete about the creatures (for my part, I rather liked that they remained firmly side-stepped, even with the narrative culminating in Tom’s experiments in viewing them), or how some humans (like Gary) can view them unaided while apparently retaining long-term agency. Some of the human tragedies and mysteries have the force of a gut punch, though, like the explanation for Olympia’s keen ability to guide her mother away from the creatures, hidden (and experienced as a dirty, dangerous secret) for all sixteen of her years.
In Malorie, Malerman has to walk a tightrope between offering a satisfying sequel to Bird Box and dispelling that book’s eerie and compelling sense of otherworldly dread. He does so by providing a linear narrative which focuses on the characters themselves and their interaction with a profoundly changed world. At times, however, this makes for a frustrating story (although an emotionally charged and readable one), which lacks a sense of real sparkle. If readers enjoyed season two of The Walking Dead, with its focus on how the protagonists felt about the zombies – rather than the zombies themselves – I think they will similarly enjoy Malorie.