Paul Tremblay’s “Survivor Song” should come with a disclaimer: This story is fiction, and any similarity to the life you have lived since March is purely coincidental. Consider the prelude, in which the pregnant Natalie frets over her husband, Paul, who is on a grocery run. The store is just a few minutes away from the house, but Paul is stuck in a line outside waiting to pick up rationed goods. The couple exchange worried texts that Paul might be exposed to the mysterious and deadly virus that has been spreading throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the country, baffling scientists and overwhelming hospitals.
The story alternates chapters and points of view between Natalie (“Nats”) and her longtime friend, Dr. Ramola Sherman (“Rams”), a Norwood-based pediatrician. In the first chapter, Ramola is resting up for her next 16-hour shift at her local hospital, which is struggling to deal with a surge in patients with the virus. She talks by group text with her nurses, and they express their concerns about their lack of proper PPE, how the government doesn’t seem to know how to handle the growing pandemic, and how they fear for their own safety.
It is worth noting that Tremblay turned this book in to his publisher last August and finished final edits in October, long before the onset of the pandemic. While it’s nearly impossible to read the story outside of the context of current events, it’s also somewhat unfair to the book.
Tremblay’s previous novels “Cabin at the End of the World,” “A Head Full of Ghosts,” and “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” succeed on his ability to present the uncanny — unsettling worlds where the paranormal is possible but never confirmed. The possession in “Ghosts” and the apocalyptic events in “Cabin” may have otherworldly origins, or it might be coincidence. In some work, those elements might be the focus. For Tremblay, they are intensifiers, putting the spotlight on the characters and their relationships. “Survivor Song” would have had that same sense of the uncanny, but our timeline caught up with his story.
The medical details of Tremblay’s epidemic diverge quickly from current reality. This rabies-like virus turns people (and animals) into incoherent killing machines. Paul is brutally murdered by a victim of the virus just a few pages into the story, and Natalie sustains a bite trying to defend him. She is alone, just 15 days away from her due date, and possibly infected with a quick-moving and deadly virus. Her worst fears are realized immediately, and the horror is just getting started.
Natalie is frantic as she makes the short drive to Ramola’s place. She’s covered in blood and barely coherent as she relates her story to Ramola by phone. The bite is bad, and if Natalie is infected, it’s only a matter of time before it reaches her unborn child. Ramola’s race to save her friend is what drives the story, and the sense of doom is unrelenting. To make sure the child is born healthy, Natalie needs an immediate C-section, but when the hospital they just fought their way into is invaded by the infected, they find themselves in an ambulance driving into an uncertain future.
Ramola’s sole focus is Natalie, who is distracting herself from her pain and anxiety by recording messages to her child on her phone. She tells them everything they’ll need to know if she doesn’t make it, hedging her bets with jokes in case she makes it. The devotion of these two characters — Ramola to Natalie and Natalie to her child — gives the story an emotional punch. And Ramola, the calm, ever-practical one, is the story’s heart.
There is plenty here traditional zombie fans will recognize and enjoy. Tremblay has aspirations far beyond genre tropes, but he also loves a good old-fashioned monster. But in Ramola, he has a character who repudiates the macho body-count narrative. When the women meet a pair of teenagers hunting down an infected man and spewing zombie movie rules, Ramola gets them to back down once the victim is incapacitated. When one of the boys finds a dangerous-looking amateur militia group on the road, Ramola insists on talking to them instead of hiding, and finds they are less homogenous than predicted. And in the final moments, when Ramola could easily give up and watch her friend and her child die, she makes the most painful decision of her life to keep a promise.
Tremblay uses inventive structure to frame his story. Particularly effective is the white space he uses in a climactic scene, space that is full of despair and allows the reader to pause and soak in it. Then there’s Tremblay’s repeated references to this story as a song, which may tie into something Natalie says in one of her dictation sessions, something that sounds terrifying but is meant to bring comfort. “There aren’t any other timelines, and this one has always been a horror,” she says. What she means is, you get through it.
Tremblay makes it clear that the world doesn’t end in “Survivor Song.” As he wrote in a passage he tweeted in March, just as our current pandemic took hold before the book was published, “the virus doesn’t herald the end of the world, or of the United States, or even the commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the coming days, conditions will continue to deteriorate. Emergency services and other public safety nets will be stretched to their breaking points, exacerbated by the wily antagonists of fear, panic, misinformation; a myopic, sluggish federal bureaucracy further hamstrung by a president unwilling and woefully unequipped to make the rational, science-based decisions necessary; and exacerbated, of course, by plain old individual everyday evil. But there will be heroes, too, including ones who don’t view themselves as such.”
By Paul Tremblay
William Morrow, 320 pp., $27.99
Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer and musician based in the Boston area.