One of my standing rules when writing book reviews is no spoilers up front. Half the garbage on the Internet launches right into telling you what the book is about. If it’s not in the description, I don’t wanna hear it. Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay might be the exception to this rule. But let me at least try the traditional spoiler-free approach first:
I went into this book knowing exactly zero about what it was about. (I didn’t even read the description). I just heard Paul Tremblay was at the top of the horror heap, so I said “why not?” I was not disappointed.
This is a story about an epidemic, potentially world-ending stuff in the form of a virus left unchecked. With all the chaos, no one knows what it is. Zombie invasion, biological warfare, super rabies? But what caught me almost right away was this feeling that this…could…really…happen.
It didn’t feel like a piece of fiction where I was safe to observe. Putting myself in the characters shoes terrified me because the story was just this side of plausible.
The author was stingy with details, and it served to create this uneasy feeling where, as with the characters, you don’t have a complete picture of what’s going on. The wave of internet noise and news reports starts to cause more chaos and despair, accelerating the decline of civil order.
This story made me feel connected to other people and more empathetic, which might be one requisite for success. I think a more important achievement is that it brings together many lessons we could learn in our current pandemic with COVID-19.
There is tremendous loss throughout this story, and it doesn’t feel like characters, but rather actual people who are dying. It was a bit hard to read it in that regard. But at first, with no idea what I was getting into and dutifully plugging through the opening scene with pregnant wife Natalie waiting for her husband Paul, it was a bit of a yawner. I thought these were the extras about to die horribly to establish how scary things are before moving on to the main characters. My expectations were immediately flipped on their head and we find Natalie — who in fact loses her husband from a man-gone-mad biting and bludgeoning him to death — driving frantically through Boston to find her best friend, who happens to be a doctor. Natalie has been bitten and needs help before she becomes a rabbid mindless vegetable. The atmosphere feels authentically creepy because what we’re dealing with is a super rabies and the city is essentially infested with rabbid mammals of all kinds that succumb to the disease within hours.
There are parallels to the current COVID-19 crisis but it could also be a timeless story about certain groups of people who are in denial about the scale of the crisis or conspiracy theories running rampant and the breakdown in the system, whether it’s government services or social order. And you ultimately see, like in any situation where fear and chaos rule, people die unnecessarily. So there’s that subtext, but it doesn’t beat you over the head or get in the way of the narrative focus, which is the relationships and encounters in the journey.
Many characters in the book think that this is the end. A real zombie invasion. Or a deep state government conspiracy to release a virus and then make money off the vaccine. Take your pick. While some kids think they’re fighting zombies and go looking for trouble, you have rational adults trying to reason with them and let them know that things will be OK. There’s a lot packed into the relationships between the two sets of best friends who meet up (the two adolescent boys and Doctor “Rams” and Natalie ). I love the kids because they’re dropping pop culture references and movie quotes and it’s just hilarious to see how they basically, like all youth, think that they’re young and indestructible. They reference zombie movies and the tropes in the genre, notably how the heroes come across random people or “randos” who eventually die. It’s a bit of clever foreshadowing about the boys, who think they’re the heroes, but who ultimately don’t make it. Their demise is a particularly somber section of the story.
The quartet comes across an animal control posse that basically is looking to kill all the pets in the neighborhood, and that goes horribly wrong. This is when one of the boys gets bit by a relentless coyote that tracked Rams and Natalie in the ambulance. Rams has to get Natalie to a safe hospital to deliver the baby, and they part ways with the youth, who go into the woods and accept their fate, with the healthy boy choosing to share the same end as his friend. They battle wild rabbid animals and when the infected friend attacks, the other boy chooses to evade and not fight him. In the end they both go quietly into the night.
So the women’s relationship and the realization that Natalie won’t make it takes on this urgency as they focus on making sure Natalie’s baby has a fighting chance at life. Natalie tries to hang onto this fragile hope of having a child, knowing full well that she will herself die. She begs Rams, who doesn’t want a child even of her own, to promise to be the baby’s caregiver.
In keeping with the book’s you-feel-like-you’re-there feeling, at the very end when Rams has to somehow subdue Natalie, who has “turned,” it’s truly a tragic and arresting experience that will define the rest of Rams’ life. The actual medical procedure of a C-section to try to get the baby out alive is told with great detail so you feel like a doctor who has a person’s life in your hands. It’s a visceral experience and a climax that effectively caps what has become an emotionally draining experience for Rams and the reader. Kudos to Tremblay for this final nailbiter sequence. The baby isn’t breathing when the doctor finally delivers the child, and it’s not until 10 years later in the fast forward epilogue that you find out that little Lily did make it and Rams has tried to honor her friend’s request by raising the daughter.
I loved this apocalypse/not-apocalypse tale. The fact it was written during a real-life pandemic helped me experience it through a different, more empathetic lens. It’s a tightly written, emotionally anchored read that shows you the human side to pandemics and perhaps reminds us to never forget what we’re really fighting for. 4 of 5 stars