Thursday, 9 March 2023

Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay (William Morrow) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Plague novel explores the power of friendship amid the delicate dance between life and death

A rabies-like outbreak has invaded the world of Natalie Larsen and Dr. Ramola “Rams” Sherman. After a deranged man bites Natalie, who is eight months pregnant, the longtime friends go on a short but harrowing journey to find her the appropriate care. 

Author Paul Tremblay tones down the ambiguity for which he is known, opting instead to keep the reader wondering whether Natalie received her vaccination in time to prevent major complications. Are her symptoms merely attributable to late pregnancy? Or will she succumb to the infection that has reduced so many to slavering, enraged wanderers?

Natalie comes across as self-centred and irritating. Rarely does she reflect on the fate of her recently deceased husband, and throughout her journey, she uses her phone to record voice messages for her unborn child. Though likely meant to sound spontaneous, these rambling passages fringe on the annoying talky fiction in which a first-person narrator spews colloquialisms and reveals little that contributes to the plot. 

These criticisms are not to suggest that Survivor Song fails as a novel. Once again, Tremblay proves he’s a horror author to be reckoned with. He kicks off the action quickly by killing off a key character named Paul – interesting name choice – perhaps signalling that the author will deviate from his typical path.

Ramola, the more intelligent and less abrasive half of the duo, is a paediatrician who has never wanted a child of her own. Still, she exemplifies resilience and heroism by doing everything in her power to help her annoying friend and her unborn child. 

The book also introduces adolescent buddies Luis and Josh. Their boyish banter – they call each other “guy” – and the juxtaposition between their love of apocalyptic movies and the reality of what is happening prove both humorous and charming. Romala must repeatedly remind the boys that they are not warriors fighting against zombies.

Though there is nothing groundbreaking about this story, Tremblay’s storytelling skills shine through, particularly in his depictions of the infected: their ferocity, their unpredictability, their jibber jabber, their awkward gait, and even their attempts to return to humanity. An early scene involving the observation of a figure and the sound of its feet on gravel illustrates the author’s knack for stretching out an approaching threat. 

Survivor Song, published in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, also echoes many of the polarizing issues that emerged at that time. 

More than once, the author states that this story is not a fairy tale but rather a song. If this is the case, then there are several skippable parts, but there are also goosebump-inducing passages like the greatest songs have. These scenes involve non-traditional “dances” in which healthy individuals attempt to help those in the throes of the disease while trying to avoid getting hurt.—Douglas J. Ogurek***

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