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Monday, January 25, 2021

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay review


AUTHOR INFO: Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of Growing Things and Other Stories, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family.

FORMAT: Published on July 7, 2020 by William Morrow. Length - 320 pages (HC). Available in all formats. Cover design by Mumtaz Mustafa.

OVERVIEW
This is not a fairy tale. Certainly it is not one that has been sanitized, homogenized, or Disneyfied, bloodless in every possible sense of the word, beasts and human monsters defanged and claws clipped, the children safe and the children saved.

A virulent form of rabies turns people (and animals) into feral beasts. A pregnant woman, Nats, and her friend, Doctor Ramola (Rams), race against the time to get to the hospital. And that’s it. No world-spanning horrors, here. Instead, we get an intimate, fast-paced, and gripping story of two friends trying to get one of them to the hospital before it’s too late. 

Although it sounds like one, it’s not a zombie book. Infected show symptoms associated with zombies (the urge to bite others), but their illness is curable. When not gut-punching readers, Tremblay pokes fun at the staples of the genre. And when he gut-punches readers, he shows no mercy.

High personal stakes make the story gripping. Intense narration (through Nats and Rams POVs) makes it compelling and layered - Rams and Nats’ chapters complement each other. The havoc that ensues the mass outbreak of a rage-inducing virus divides the community, maiming social safety nets, and diminishing the rule of law. Some use it for petty goals, others try to survive. 

Natalie’s life depends on a dose of the rabies vaccine; she desperately needs it before she gives birth or succumbs to the illness. Chaos and outbreaks of violence turn getting from point A to B into a mission impossible. Seemingly banal complications (like car troubles) pile up. Coupled with time running out, they limit possible choices and force characters to make crushing decisions. 

Readers caring for protagonists won’t mind a few shortcuts taken by the author. An emotionless look at the story will, however, show some preaching and the use of hackneyed stereotypes (camouflage wearing, racist militiamen - I’m not saying racism isn’t a problem but this take on it feels overused in fiction). Mundane obstacles revolve around meeting rabid animals and people, getting stuck in traffic jams, puking, or fighting. In other words, they’re not particularly inventive.

Because I loved the characters’ voices, I didn’t mind, but I feel I have to mention these potential issues to make the review fair. Both Natalie and Ramola are strong characters with enough backstory to flesh them without slowing down an action-driven tale of survival. The story is all about them and their reactions to adversity. 

Survivor Song is an intensely personal drama that takes place over a few hours. The compressed timeline makes everything fervent. Mundane horrors and difficulties scare more than supernatural, when, despite the warning in the first paragraph, readers dare to hope for a happy ending. 

Survivor Song has it all - eruptions of violence, personal stakes, and action. It’s gripping from the first page, never slows down, and delivers a powerful ending. Despite its bleakness, it’s surprisingly humane, filled with moments of poignancy, hope, and resilience. An excellent read.

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