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Survivor Song Paul Tremblay Main

"Survivor Song" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Titan Books

survivor song paul tremblay uk poster large

Written by Paul Tremblay
2020, 338 pages, Fiction
Released on 7th July, 2020


There have been exciting murmurings about Paul Tremblay’s latest novel Survivor Song in the horror community for many months now and I am delighted to reveal that this little beauty is truly worth the hype. This is a rare beast, as on most of these occasions the final product rarely matches the advance praise and I was riveted for all 336 pages. This cracker deserves to find an audience beyond the horror community and could easily hijack fans of mainstream thriller audiences and those who simply enjoy a good page-turner. Survivor Song, in a very unassuming manner, blends all these elements in what is bound is one of the standout novels of 2020. Hot on the heels of Todd Keisling’s majestic Devil’s Creek, horror fans are spoilt for choice with the sheer quality of new titles on the market.

The plot is deceptively simple and can be summed up in a relatively brief single paragraph. There is a very powerful and contagious strain of a rabies virus that can be transferred from animals, who also get very aggressive, to humans. If not treated immediately, it leads to disorientation, irrational violence, and a quick death. Survivor Song kicks off when very little is known about the virus and the action centres upon a breakout in a town New England, over a brief twelve-hour period. It is an incredibly powerful snapshot of distress, confusion and this location quickly disintegrating before our eyes. Because it is so incredibly realistic, so very ‘now’, this only makes it even more riveting.

One of the great strengths of Survivor Song is the almost-documentary feel it radiates, especially in the sequences connected to the hospital, where much of the story is set. The reader is a fly on the wall, observing the horrific crash of the bureaucracy which keep hospitals ticking over collapse in a few hours with the spread of the virus. And when the harried and scared medical staff start discussing the lack of PPE you will immediately think of COVID-19!

I’m sure the latter part of 2020 will include a rash of virus ‘inspired’ thrillers and I hope Survivor Song is not lumped in with potential cash-ins, this book was written long before COVID-19 and is all the more scarier because it is so similar to current world events. In the background we hear of various statements from an unnamed American president and his failure to act in time and the conspiracy theories which he endorsed. This is an uncanny reflection of the last few months we have all listened to the name-calling perpetrated by the most powerful.

The plot is built around the long-standing friendship between paediatrician Ramola Sherman and Natalie, who is over eight months pregnant. In the opening stages Natalie’s husband is killed and she is bitten in the attack, Ramola comes to the rescue and the story revolves around the battle to locate the vaccine whilst there is chaos everywhere and all support systems begin to collapse. As Natalie is a doctor, the reader is party to her medical fears and opinions, and as the clock ticks and they must decide whether they can save the baby. But at what cost? Scarily, a symptom of the virus is the afflicted speaking disjointedly and eventually gibberish, so keep an eye on sentence syntaxes!

This moving and very human story was loaded with beautiful touches. Although the word ‘zombie’ is used on numerous occasions, this is not a zombie novel, far from it. If you are after a trashy and violent gore fest then this might not be the book for you. Like the best books of its type, for example Alden Bell’s Reapers are the Angels, ultimately it is a tale of people trying to survive and their relationships, not zombies. I loved the multiple reference’s to Natalie’s overnight bag for her birth, in actual fact I found these heart-breaking, and the clear symbolism that that everything is far from normal, but that Natalie would still try to hold onto her bag as if it was her last connection with normality.

Survivor Song is not a particularly violent novel, nor does it need to be when very normal characters are violently ripped from their everyday lives. Society has lots of unwritten rules that 99% of the population subconsciously follow, one of these is cutting slack for pregnant women. There is a particularly unsettling scene in the novel when this norm is thrown out the window and the two women find themselves abandoned and dumped. But do not fret, at least Natalie’s bag is returned to her in unceremoniously fashion.

The story is told in the third person from both Natalie’s and Ramola’s point of view, with a few other interludes where the former talks to her unborn child in rambling but moving narratives. Although there are very few other characters, I really loved the teenage boys the two women meet along the way. Put yourself into the shoes of a teenage boy if such an ‘apocalypse’ occurs: it is exciting, they want to experience it and believe they will survive if they follow the blueprint shown in The Walking Dead or countless zombie-themed computer games. But these boys have heart and their story concludes in a strangely moving manner. There are also riveting scenes with ‘zombie foxes’ and other contagious, violent, animals, with talk of these beasts you might be forgiven for thinking you were reading a Hunter Shea romp! But these scenes are painfully realistic in showing how powerful and disorientating the virus truly is.

Slightly different from the previous three novels by Paul Tremblay. this latest has a different style of ambiguity, which works exceptionally well in both A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock but misfires in The Cabin at the End of the World. He cleverly refuses to give us a ‘big’ picture and we are not permitted a panoramic view of what is going on in England, Australia, or the rest of the world. Nor do we need it, the frightening goings on in the New England microcosm is more than enough.

Survivor Song is an outstanding blend of horror and thriller built around a virus which will have the hair on the back of your neck standing up. From start to finish it is painfully realistic with a level of downbeat inevitability which might bring a tear to the eye.


Overall: 5 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US
Buy from Amazon UK

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About The Author
Tony Jones
Author: Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer - UK
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
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