Book Review: Survivor Song
Reality is scarier than fiction in Paul Tremblay's pandemic horror novel
Written by Sarah Dobbs
A never-before-seen virus has broken out. Hospitals are overrun, with doctors and nurses forced to work without the proper PPE. A government-imposed lockdown stops people from travelling beyond city limits, and there are long queues outside supermarkets, with measures in place to prevent people from panic-buying essential supplies.
You’ve got to feel kind of bad for author Paul Tremblay: this novel, his eighth, must have been in the works for ages, but all of the carefully thought-through consequences of a sudden terrifying epidemic he’s packed into Survivor Song just read like an optimistic version of our current reality.
Which isn’t to say it’s not still a compelling read. The virus here is a mutation of rabies, which transforms the infected into aggressive, slavering, mindless versions of their former selves, inevitably dubbed “zombies” by survivors. Dr Ramola Sherman would probably have done the sensible thing and stayed at home with the door locked, but when her friend Natalie calls – pregnant, bitten, and desperate – she risks everything to try and get Natalie into hospital. But the clock’s ticking, as this virus works fast, and there’s no known cure...
As in his previous horror novels, Tremblay demonstrates a finely honed instinct for the nastiest detail in any given situation, making sure to twist the knife at every given opportunity. He also extends a huge amount of sympathy to his characters: here, the bonds of friendship are stronger than fear, stronger than grief, stronger, even, than any survival instinct. That’s the kind of message many other horror stories have tried to convey, over the decades, but rarely managed so convincingly. Ramola and Natalie’s friendship feels genuine, which makes the sacrifices they make for one another even more heart-breaking.
It might be too difficult to read Survivor Song as pure escapism, because there are just too many details that demand comparisons with our real, lived experience of a pandemic here in 2020. There’s no real relief to be found there, either, because the fictional epidemic, though no less deadly than COVID-19, is far easier to contain, while its death toll seems almost quaintly small compared with the ever-climbing numbers in the newspapers. But maybe there’s comfort to be drawn from it nonetheless: even in the worst possible circumstances, it suggests, we’ll find ways to work miracles for our loved ones.
Author: Paul Tremblay
Publisher: Titan Books