Over the past few years Paul G Tremblay has steadily built an impressive reputation as a writer of dark fiction, with such acclaimed novels as A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and The Cabin at the End of the World. I’ve long been a fan of his short fiction but until now his longer work has evaded me. So I thought it was about time I rectified that.
Survivor Song, his latest publication, tells the story of pregnant Natalie, and her struggle to stay safe in the wake of an extremely virulent outbreak of a rabies-like virus that has decimated Massachusetts (and maybe beyond). She makes contact with her old friend, Dr Ramola ‘Rams’ Sherman, a paediatrician at a local hospital, and together they embark on an anxious journey to save Natalie and protect the life of her unborn child.
The story is eerily prescient – in terms of the societal impact during a pandemic – and at times makes for uncomfortable reading, due to the all-too familiar nature of the proceedings – things like road-blocks, self isolation, supermarket stockpiling, societal panic, etc. The novel takes place over just a few hours, and is fast-paced and well-written, with a beautifully controlled prose. What I most liked about the story was that Tremblay largely ignores the wider impact of the pandemic, and instead focuses on the characters and its direct effect on them, which in turn offers us glimpses of the wider world as a secondary strand. It’s a technique that works well, never letting us forget that these are not merely puppets who have devastation thrown at them in an effort to see how they cope, but instead are very real characters who behave in a believable manner.
There’s a stark inevitability to the plot, and Tremblay should be applauded for his integrity on delivering on the developments that he sets up as the story progresses. The characters of the two central women are nicely balanced and varied, and while I didn’t particularly care for the two teenagers that they come across, the story still felt natural and uncontrived.
The author makes a clear effort to distance the plot from that of a ‘zombie’ novel – even going so far as to have one of the characters dismiss the word outright – but this book works equally as well as a zombie novel as it does any kind of genre thriller involving engaging characters and an over-reaching threat. The science feels authentic, and is subtle enough to be believable, especially with the comparisons against life in COVID-19 2020 adding an extra level of verisimilitude. I’ll definitely be keen to check out more of Tremblay’s novels. I really had a great time reading Survivor Song and I have no hesitation in recommending it widely.