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Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay review – a startlingly prescient & cinematic pandemic novel

Survivor Song was written before the coronavirus pandemic: this feels inconceivable. Within the first few pages, we’re plunged into an all-too-familiar scene from the confusion of lockdown. What does the government’s guidance even mean? Should we listen to everything we hear on Facebook about the virus? There’ll be several hours’ worth of queues at the grocery store, and our protagonist – Natalie – has already stress-eaten all the candy in the house. Tremblay’s novel places us in a nightmare vision of 2020, in which New England is caught up in a 28 Days Later-like “rage virus”, and we’re in the twitchy-curtained first few days of the outbreak.

The premise is utterly irresistible, and Tremblay grabs his reader by the throat. Natalie is heavily pregnant, waiting in a darkened house for her furloughed husband Paul to return from the store. The tension builds up: from the post on a message board that “This isn’t rabies. This is something knew” (a stark statement demonstrating Tremblay’s pitch-perfect mastery of tone, reminiscent of his short story Swim Wants To Know If It’s As Bad As Swim Thinks); to Natalie’s determination to keep the house lights off; and all the way to her utter dread when Paul makes too much noise on his return. When we finally hear the lurching footsteps on gravel – a man on the doorstep vocalising strangely, coughing and contorting – we’re already immersed. In an utterly cinematic opening sequence, Paul is dead (an image from nightmares: “the boneless slack with which his head lolls and dangles demonstrates beyond doubt that his neck doesn’t work anymore, will never work again”), Natalie is bitten, and she’s fled the house.

This breakneck pace continues throughout. Natalie is constantly on the move, her bite a ticking clock; the need to secure prophylactics and an urgent caesarean takes her to best friend (and doctor) Ramola. The two women career to a local hospital, swamped with bite patients and the worried well – into an ambulance just as the paramedic is shot dead – off to another hospital, intercepted on the way by paramilitary pet-killing squads, two jumpy teens on bikes with makeshift weapons, a fleet of buses carrying pregnant women and newborns to safety… it’s testament to Tremblay’s skill that the plot feels utterly inexorable throughout, no scene or paragraph wasted. This is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word.

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It’s also difficult to describe a book like this without using the phrase: “like watching a film”, and Survivor Song certainly contains scenes which will feel familiar from the (dare I say it) zombie apocalypse genre. We can recognise the echoes of “it’s quiet… too quiet” in the beautiful portrait of a deserted road, “leaves skittering like mice”, and know from the urgent coded tannoy messages about violent combative individuals that the infected will shortly break onto the protagonists’ hospital floor. The action, however, never feels cliché: Tremblay treads a constant line between our expectations of the genre and his ability to convey actual nerve-shredding chaos in his depictions of a hospital overrun, the infected taking on a gun-toting not-so-tough-now local militia, and a “rage virus” scenario in a country both armed and paranoid. His “zombies” are absolutely terrifying, their random insistent vocalisations reminiscent of the speech virus in the film Pontypool, their violent hydrophobia giving Ramola and others a neat way to detect how well Natalie is (or isn’t). This light hand with the genre tropes works extremely well when we encounter Josh and Luis, two horror-movie-savvy teenagers whose early grasp of the situation (bantering: “this is the part of the zombie movie when the heroes team up with randos”) eventually turns heartbreaking with the realisation they’re in Natalie and Ramola’s story and won’t survive it: “It’s fucking obvious now. You and me aren’t the heroes. We’re the randos, yeah?”)

This deftness extends to the characterisation of the two protagonists, Natalie and Ramola. Tremblay lets us get to know them by their desires and dreams, from Natalie’s pre-pandemic insistence she didn’t want to die for the baby (“No Children of Men bullshit for us), to Ramola’s relationship with her parents (a beautifully pitched couple from South Shields, “a right mess, innit… be safe, love”). Natalie speaks to her unborn child throughout the novel in an audio log that allows her to be a more fully-realised character than the “incubator” she was afraid of becoming; it’s a particularly difficult feature of the narrative that, as she loses her humanity while the baby inside her remains capable of being saved, she gradually becomes the plot device she so feared.

It’s this nuanced portrayal of humanity that marks out all Tremblay’s novels. While Survivor Song wasn’t written with the coronavirus pandemic in mind, there’s so much about it that’s utterly relatable, particularly his depiction of emotional responses. Ramola sees her own humanity reflected back at her in the people crowding to get to safety: “it’s a someone-please-see-me-and-help-me plea; everyone’s face shows confusion mixed with terror and incredulity, and perhaps most frightening, an odd look of recognition/resignation”. It’s easy in the genre to rely on crowds as “the mob”, but this novel shies away from that: “They plead and they are confused and angry and afraid. Desperation and realization lurk within their collective voices. They don’t understand why or how this is happening, why it is that their personal emergency is not more important than anyone else’s; why no one is out here helping them.”

As the choices made define an individual, Ramola has to make a lot of hard ones. We’re warned at the start that “this is not a fairy tale. Certainly it is not one that has been sanitised…” and this holds true throughout most of the book, which is full of startlingly abrupt deaths and changes in circumstance. Ramola is put on the spot by Natalie, has to agree to raise her unborn child, and the awfulness of this position (Ramola never wanting children) is given full weight in the text. Ramola increasingly violates medical ethics and makes devastatingly dangerous and selfish choices in order to give Natalie’s baby the best possible chance of being born: towards the end, the reader’s point of view is breathtakingly pitted against Ramola’s as she lies to get Natalie strapped into a bus of pregnant women and newborns just as she begins to “turn”. Given the novel’s uncompromising penultimate image of the two protagonists, I couldn’t help but feel let down by the epilogue, which seemed to offer a jarring “happy ending” at odds with the satisfying bleakness of Tremblay’s world. Others, however – after a bleak and violent helter-skelter of a novel, particularly as our world deals with its own pandemic – might appreciate the tonal rest.

Survivor Song offers a vision of a pandemic in which “emergency services and other public safety nets will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation; a myopic, sluggish federal bureaucracy further hamstrung by a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary; and exacerbated, of course, by plain old individual everyday evil.” But the rabies-alike virus is so virulent and fast-acting it contains itself after “almost ten thousand people [in New England]… have died”. Readers can draw their own comparisons and contrasts; this is a timely and deeply readable novel which deserves a far wider audience than the “genre” category it falls into. Tremblay’s writing is spare but beautiful, offering both spot-on dialogue (“Don’t patronise me. Actually, do patronise me”) and gems of description, like this rabid dog tearing down the road into the sunset, “triumphantly barking in full throat, running so fast it could be floating”. Effortlessly blending zombie/outbreak tropes with rich characterisation, he succeeds in putting a tight, personal focus on an extremely cinematic disaster.

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay is published by Titan Books.

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Ally Wilkes

By Ally Wilkes

Avid horror reader and book reviewer. Greenwich-based writer of ghost stories, cosmic horror, and the Weird. Obsessed with historical Polar exploration, lost expeditions and survival cannibalism; writes supernatural novels about the ice and winter dark. Represented by Oli Munson at AM Heath Ltd. On Twitter @UnheimlichManvr.

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