Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay
Titan Books, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Sarah Deeming
A rabies-like virus has taken hold in New England, locking everyone down in a strict curfew to stem the spread of infection. But Dr Ramola Sherman can’t wait this out in the safety of her home. She must help her friend, Natalie, who is eight months pregnant and possibly infected herself. Ramola must get her friend the medical help she needs within the first hour of infection if she is to have any chance of saving her friend and the life within her.
At the time of reading, this story feels very relevant. I’ve just been told the schools are shutting down to prevent the spread of Corvid-19 and everyone is wondering when we’ll follow the example of other places for a full lockdown. There is the feel of life imitating art in a sinister way.
The story is written in third person present tense, present tense being a rising trend in contemporary literary horror. Under normal circumstances, I find this technique works well, bringing immediacy to the story and raising the stakes. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the same in Survivor Song because throughout there are large sections of background information giving us the history between Ramola and Natalie, or conclusions to other characters’ stories. These breaks in the immediate action meant I felt the pacing was a little off for me.
There are also phone recordings from Natalie to her unborn child which tracks her progress through grief and fear to acceptance of her situation. These sections are interesting and go some way to rebuilding the tension because we, the reader, can see how hopeless the situation is. It’s hard to hear a mother’s message of love to a child she fears she will never see.
Which brings me to another part I had difficulty with. Even though it is clear Natalie is infected, doctors, including Ramola, ignore her symptoms and send her to a maternity hospital. Their desire to save Natalie’s child’s life actually risks spreading the disease further. And yet, it is also a powerful message of not giving into panic and fear during difficult situations. While there are vigilantes roaming the streets looking for infected people to kill, there are some still focused on saving life wherever they can. The bond between Ramola and Natalie carries the story’s message of much needed hope.
While I found Survivor Song a little hit and miss, there were wonderful elements. The fall of the first hospital builds tension as things slowly but uncontrollable disintegrate into infection madness. I would recommend this to anyone who loves virus-based horrors or literary horror, and, of course, fans of Tremblay.