There’s an age-old question – what is the quickest way to get from point A to point B? Usually, the answer is a straight line. However, author Paul Tremblay (Head Full of Ghosts, Cabin At The End Of The World) shows us that the answer depends on whether or not there is a pandemic going on. In his newest novel Survivor Song Paul Tremblay turns his talented hand to the subject of a global pandemic;
“When it happens, it happens quickly.
New England is locked down, a strict curfew the only way to stem the wildfire spread of a rabies-like virus. The hospitals cannot cope with the infected, as the pathogen’s ferociously quick incubation period overwhelms the state. The veneer of civilization is breaking down as people live in fear of everyone around them. Staying inside is the only way to keep safe.
But pediatrician Ramola Sherman can’t stay safe, when her friend Natalie calls – her husband is dead, she’s eight months pregnant, and she’s been bitten. She is thrust into a desperate race to bring Natalie and her unborn child to a hospital, to try and save both their lives.
Their once familiar home has become a violent and strange place, twisted into a barely recognizable landscape. What should have been a simple, joyous journey becomes a brutal trial.”
The blurb sounds almost like what September might hold for 2020 (aka the year that just never seems to quit). As a reader, it was certainly something that was never far from my mind when I was burning through the book. The first twenty pages have a very clever group chat between Ramola and her co-workers talking about the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) and the dangers they face as health professionals. I knew from that exact moment that this was not going to be like any other book I read this year.
When I’m not reading books and writing articles for this website, I actually work in a hospital. I’ve been part of group chats like this with my co-workers. When I read those pages, it stopped being a story for a few short pages and became my life. The stakes instantly felt more personal. I bonded with Ramola in a way I haven’t with other characters I’ve read this year or even last year. I’m not a doctor, and admittedly I’m not a woman. Yet from the early onset of the book, I was connected to the story. I was connected to Ramola in a few short pages simply through my own 2020 experience. That is the power of the characters Survivor Song–they are just every day people, dealing with something much bigger than them.
Having read other Paul Tremblay novels, I can confidently say this is one of his strengths as a writer. He writes some of the most realistic characters to grace the page. The relationship between Ramola and her best friend Natalie is such a nuanced relationship you almost feel bad for listening in to their struggle as they get from point A to point B. You constantly want more, and theirs is a friendship that keeps on giving the reader, a deeper insight to their relationship and their motivations. The two leads of Survivor Song are two fully fleshed out women. They could be your neighbor, your family or even yourself.
There is something to be said about reading a novel dealing with a pandemic, during a pandemic. Paul Tremblay manages to write a zombie novel, which actively refuses to use the word zombie seriously. This isn’t a story about the dead wanting to eat your brains. This is a story about survival in a world that is in the grips of losing its identity to a virus. It is a story about survival and above all else, it’s a story about friendship. It’s a story of endurance and that small glimmer of hope that will see you through to sun rise. In short, Survivor Song is a story of love.
Throughout 336 pages, the reader travels with Ramola and Natalie for a day (give or take) in this new world. His writing style lends its self brilliantly as the chapters are split between Ramola’s third-person perspective as she approaches the virus with the mind of a doctor and the heart of a concerned and scared friend. Alternative chapters are first person recorded messages from Natalie to her unborn child. You feel the constant tick of the clock, every minute that passes in the book is felt by the reader. I’ve never wanted to read a book so quickly and slow myself down as much as I have with Survivor Song.
Horror is always a subjective subject. What scares me (carousel horses if you want to know – Mary Poppins is nightmare fuel to me) might not scare you and vice versa. In Survivor Song, the passing of time and feeling of helplessness is the root of the fear. It’s not the virus that’s changing the landscape of New England. It’s the countdown to the next minute and what that’s going to bring. After the hand that 2020 has dealt us all, whether you’ve stayed at home isolating, worked through it, or simply observed the passing of time, this is a novel that will affect you. It certainly affected me on a much deeper level than a lot of the other novels I’ve read this year.
Once again, Paul Tremblay has proved there is space in the landscape for horror ground in reality. His voice is such a unique one, that one minute you will be laughing at an inside joke between the two leads and the next your heart will be in your throat as you wish for time to slow down. Survivor Song is hands down, one of my personal favorite books to come out of 2020, and all I can do is thank Paul Tremblay for putting the words to the page and allowing me to go from Point A to Point B with Ramola and Natalie. It wasn’t a pleasant ride but it’s one that will stay with me for a very long time – and Paul Tremblay owes me a fiver for the ice cream I had to eat my feelings with at the end of the book.
Survivor Song is available now from Harper Collins Publishers.