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'Inspection' Doesn't Quite Live Up To Its Surprising Premise

Josh Malerman's 2014 debut, Bird Box, remains one of the most surprising, electrifying books I've ever read, a chilling fable-cum-thriller about a young mother who must navigate herself and her two children to safety down a river while blindfolded.

Malerman's latest novel, Inspection, has a surprising premise, too: In an isolated towerlike building, 24 12-year-old boys have been raised from infancy without knowledge of girls or women. Their fiendish, tyrannical caregiver, Richard, calls himself "D.A.D." He believes that, separated from the opposite sex's distraction, his "boys" will grow up to be unusually strong, brilliant and detached, leaders for a new age.

But there are a couple of nasty flies in Richard's ointment. Keeping his charges unsullied means that those who learn about women are deemed "spoiled rotten" and sent to The Corner, a frightening, hidden place where brothers A and Z went a few years earlier. The second nastiness, from Richard's perspective: His boys have hit "the Recasting Years," meaning puberty. Well, none of them have hit it yet, which is one of the snags early in the book. We know that the boys vary in size, shape, and race; why doesn't one or more of them have terrible B.O. or pubic hair already? Since they all do everything together, they would certainly notice.

Speaking of girls, they do exist, in another tower just 3 miles away, presided over by "M.O.M." (of course), Richard's partner in crime, Marilyn. Malerman has set the girls' age at 11, an attempt to place them firmly in premenstrual territory. Since all the boys and girls think of themselves as siblings, we're supposed to overlook any same-sex distractions.

But where Bird Box electrified by keeping readers as much in the dark as its blindfolded protagonist Malorie, Inspection leans too early and too quickly toward why the boys will revolt. It happens because of a book — the only "leisure reading" books sanctioned by Richard and Marilyn are series novels penned by two writers contractually tied to live in the basements of the towers. The boys read "Lawrence Luxley" adventures, the girls "Judith Nancy" capers, the former with no female characters, the latter with no male characters.

But when the man who writes as Luxley absconds back to real life and leaves the wrong manuscript at the print shop, readers know chaos — and not the whimsical kind — will ensue. It's a great premise, especially when the long first half about the boys turns to the girls, who have more complicated ideas about what to do when their life experience is revealed as lies.

Unfortunately, Malerman spends so much time in the first half of the book describing the boys' routines that much less time is given to those of the girls. Really, 'twas it ever thus? You'd think, as a modern writer, that Malerman would avoid such an obvious pothole, especially because it's ultimately the girls whose complicated ideas provide one of the most chilling scenes.

... if 'Inspection' isn't as electrifying as 'Bird Box' or surprising as 'Unbury Carol,' I'm pretty sure his next one, or the one after that, will be superb.

Even the girls' "leisure writer" gets shortchanged. When sisters K and B stumble on "Judith Nancy" in the forbidden basement hallways of their tower, we learn very little about her aside from her name: "It's Vivian. Vivian Kleinplotz. But who would read a book written by her?" Nancy/Kleinplotz even sounds less than appealing in description, with large glasses, curly gray hair piled on her head, a high-buttoned blouse, "wrinkled hands ... as if made of the same silk as the handkerchiefs around her neck."

It's a weird view of an older woman for these shut-in girls to encounter, and it gets weirder when Nancy/Kleinplotz, waving a glass of bourbon ("It's one of life's greatest pleasures, girls"), pontificates about what really matters. Among her "three Ss" is "Suspension because you must be able to suspend your disbelief in all walks of life."

Point taken — and where readers really want to be able to suspend their disbelief is inside of a great read. But in a novel where the most important characters — the boys and girls who will upend their false realities — are the least developed, where do we hang our "I'm With The Novelist" hats? The conceit behind Inspection is a big one, an original one. Malerman has a lot of big ideas and a lot of original ideas, and if Inspection isn't as electrifying as Bird Box or surprising as Unbury Carol, I'm pretty sure his next one, or the one after that, will be superb.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.

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Bethanne Patrick