This has been a very strange, unheralded and downright troubling year for the entire planet. After a virus became bigger than expected, and began threatening the whole world, society as we knew it shut down. People hunkered inside, afraid of what they could catch if they left the safety of their homes, as well as what they could potentially bring back to their loved ones. We called it quarantine, and that’s as good a word as any, but so too was the term social isolation. In fact, the latter is something that is still going on, as COVID-19 continues to be a problem. Yes, certain states, provinces and countries have reduced or eliminated their previous restrictions, but things still haven’t gone back to to what they were before and may never actually do so. Those who opened back up early (read the United States of America) are also sadly suffering the negative consequences of doing so.
It’s a troubling time to say the least, and one we were not ready for. Nobody expected this, nor does anyone really know what will happen next. Most people are just doing their best and taking things day-by-day, while wearing masks, abusing hand sanitizer (although for good reason) and staying home as much as possible.
Needless to say, this was an oddly fitting time for Paul Tremblay’s new novel to release. Why is that? Well, Survivor Song takes place during a localized epidemic of rabid proportions. Within its pages, characters must deal with the threat of an advanced rabies disease, which has spread throughout much of Massachusetts. What’s nice is that our story doesn’t take place in Boston proper, and doesn’t fall victim to the big city setting that has become somewhat boring as of late. After all, there’s more to this world than its cities, and the quieter areas are often more interesting and unsettling.
Survivor Song begins with a bang, as a pregnant woman named Natalie deals with anxiety brought on by the unknown. Her fear is valid, though, given that she hasn’t really heard from her husband Paul, who went to pick up rations and necessities at the local grocery store an hour or more prior. With his old and failing cellphone in hand, Paul’s communication has been worryingly limited. He’s likely turned his phone off to save its shitty battery from fully dying, but Natalie wishes he would just send her a text with an ETA for his return home.
However, what follows Paul home, or at least comes through the door shortly after he does, isn’t what Natalie wanted when she wished for her husband’s return. It results in her being injured and having to flee. That injury, of course, being a bite that carries the potential for rabies. Afterwards, all Natalie can do is hope to get to her friend Ramola’s townhouse, and get said pediatrician of a friend to help her get vaccinated.
What follows is a very centralized and human story amidst a statewide disaster in the form of an epidemic. Rams and Nats (as they like to affectionately call one another) share narration duties, and the story is told from each of their perspectives as a result. Together, as co-narrators, they must venture out into the unknown and eschew orders to stay at home and socially distance. If rumours are true, Natalie only has about an hour before she’ll start showing symptoms, and a swift vaccine will be necessary to save both she and her unborn child, whom she records messages for on her phone using an app called Voyager.
This is a very personal feeling book, and one that deals with very human fears, not to mention some of the worst parts of humanity itself. Things like fear, greed, selfishness, racism and false conspiracy theories that turn people into monsters. Those things layer on top of what is, at its core, a story about an epidemic and a new, unheralded type of rabies virus. One that infects mammals both big and small, and means that any pet or wild animal could become an unpredictable murderer.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because doing so could potentially spoil parts of Survivor Song, which is a lot more intimate and character driven than I’d ever expected it would be. When I first read the premise, I didn’t realize that it would mostly just focus on two characters, as opposed to dealing with this epidemic on a larger scale. That decision worked, though, and paved the way for what is a good, tense, interesting and harried read.
As with all Paul Tremblay novels (of which I’ve now read four, not counting his most recent, great short story collection), this book is rather well written. While I did notice some errors with regards to punctuation and repeated or disorganized words, I attribute these things to the fact that I read an uncorrected proof. Said proof was provided digitally, prior to the book’s release, which is something that has yet to actually happen at the time of this review’s publication. As such, I will not take marks away for these errors, because they will likely not appear in the final work. Mistakes also tend to happen, and the odd one still makes its way into each and every first edition, no matter how much effort the author and his or her peers put into proofreading. It just always seems to be that way.
With all that being said, I doubt I really need to reiterate this, but I quite enjoyed Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. It’s a bit different from his other books, but not in a bad way. I enjoyed its more intimate focus, liked the way things were described and written, and also appreciated that the book had a good ending. A complaint that people tend to have regarding Paul’s work is that his endings are normally very ambiguous, and leave the reader to think about what happened after the final period. That isn’t the case here, and I appreciate that fact. While I sometimes like ambiguous endings, I do honestly prefer books that have finite ones. That said, I haven’t read a Paul Tremblay book that I haven’t liked, including A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, The Cabin at the End of the World, Growing Things and Other Stories, and now this one.
If you’re a fan of horror, like reading stories about characters facing impossible odds, or happen to be feeling masochistic enough to read about an epidemic during a current, worldwide pandemic, you should definitely check out Survivor Song. This is doubly true for fans of the author, of which I continue to be one. It may not be his best work (I’m still struggling with rankings), but it’s quite good and well above average nonetheless.
This review is based on a digital review copy, which we were provided by the publisher.