Book Review: Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

“An incredibly moving story of friendship in the darkest of times by an author who knows how to excavate our deepest fears, and utilise them to thrill and entertain.”

 

Survivor SongIf you love horror fiction, then you at least know the name Paul Tremblay, even if you haven’t read his work yet. He has published work in other genres before (some of which are thankfully being republished next year), but his big breakthrough in the horror genre came with the fantastic debut, A Head Full of Ghosts (William Morrow, 2015), winner of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Fiction and the book that “… scared the living hell…” out of Stephen King. Novels Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (William Morrow, 2017) and The Cabin at the End of the World (William Morrow, 2018), and the collection Growing Things and Other Stories (William Morrow, 2019) followed to similarly high praise. However, he is now faced with the challenge of releasing a book during a global pandemic, as are so many authors this year. But the subject matter of Survivor Song is even more relevant, now…

We’ll get it out of the way quickly, the elephant in the room. The book concerns a fast-spreading and deadly virus. But, of course, Tremblay wrote the book many months before Covid-19 cast its long, horrible shadow over the world. And the virus at the centre of Survivor Song is actually a mutated version of the rabies virus, with a terribly short incubation period and devastating effects on the human body. Those infected quickly become aggressive and violent towards any living being nearby. But these are not zombies; they don’t shamble after others and yearn for brains. They only want to bite and pass on the virus, causing it to spread as quickly as possible. As the rabies virus attacks the human brain, the only way to stop the infected is to kill the brain … okay, maybe they are a little zombie-like. But Romero’s monsters never spouted snippets of poetic, fairy tale-like passages while pursuing Barbara.

The virus obviously plays a major part in the book; the outbreak, confined mainly to New England, is the backdrop for the events of the story. But, as with most of Tremblay’s work, the characters and their relationships provide the main focus for the drama. Natalie is eight months pregnant with her first child at the beginning of the story, and is desperately awaiting the return of husband, Paul, from a supply run to a nearby grocery store. The reader can easily feel Natalie’s anxiety coming off the page in waves, immediately smothering us with the tense atmosphere as she waits for texts from Paul updating her on his progress. If anyone else has anxiously waited for a phone to ring or a message to come through with eagerly anticipated news, they will know how tense it can be. The tension is only relieved for a brief moment when Paul returns with the shopping, before he is attacked by a stranger in the front yard. Natalie does what she can to defend herself from this attack, but it comes at a terrible cost as she is bitten.

The rest of the book is an urgent race against time as Natalie calls on her old best friend, Paediatrician Ramola Sherman, for help. “Rams”, an Englishwoman who came to the United States to study medicine, is preparing for a shift the next day at a local hospital to help deal with the rabies outbreak, so she is somewhat ready for Natalie’s call. But nothing can prepare her for the highly unusual and aggressive strain of rabies that is quickly consuming her community. For the most part, narration switches between the two best friends, with Natalie using a handy audio recording app on her phone to create messages for her unborn child, documenting her small experience of the outbreak and memories of Paul in anticipation of the worst outcome, while Ramola adopts a more pragmatic approach, always considering their options en route to the hospital while occasionally considering her family in England.

The dynamic between the two friends is natural and heart-warming; it draws the reader in and creates a great deal of empathy for the characters and their plight. We are completely invested in their story. Tremblay explores another friendship when Natalie and Ramola cross paths with two teenagers, a couple of self-styled “zombie experts”. Fans of one of Tremblay’s earlier novels will recognise the duo from the main cast of that book, giving their own personal story some more depth and hinting at their tragic past. The conclusion of their part in Survivor Song makes for an especially touching interlude before Rams and Natalie hit the final stretch of their own journey.

With a lean page count and a tight writing style, this book can be easily devoured in a single sitting, if the reader can endure the gauntlet of loss and devastation through which Tremblay forces his characters. Fans of his earlier horror novels won’t be surprised by the amount of heart and emotion prevalent in the characters. In fact, they’ll be thrilled by the friendship between Rams and Nats and the ease with which they come to rely on each other in such a short timeframe. The horrors of the unknown danger they face with this new and devastating virus, and the uncertainty of their future and actions, will no doubt ring true with readers in our own uncertain times. But that only simply adds another layer to an incredibly moving story of friendship in the darkest of times by an author who knows how to excavate our deepest fears, and utilise them to thrill and entertain.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: William Morrow
Paperback: 208 (pps)
Release Date: 7 July 2020

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