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Survivor Song by Paul TremblayUK edition4 stars
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Buy from IndieBoundI suppose every generation gets the disaster novels it deserves. The world slouches into the 2020s, with not only worldwide political turmoil spreading nationalist paranoia, but a sharp increase in the mistrust of science resulting in such disturbing trends as the anti-vaccination movement. Add the looming threat of coronavirus putting the world on edge and — well, I suppose it’s no surprise we’re seeing a return of the outbreak novel. Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers has staked a very credible claim to being this era’s version of The Stand, and even The Andromeda Strain has gotten a sequel. Paul Tremblay, the acclaimed author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World, has now thrown his hat into the biohazard ring with Survivor Song.

Unlike many other writers of apocalyptic horror, Tremblay doesn’t care to write on an epic scale. He’s an intimate storyteller, preferring to zero in on a small group of characters through whose personal ordeals we develop a level of empathy that larger-scale storytelling often can’t satisfy. Established fans of Tremblay’s writing will appreciate how the book serves as a sort-of sequel to his 2016 novel Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. If Tremblay has any big themes he’s pursuing here, it’s in the way this book is presented as an unapologetic and even forceful middle finger to the antivax movement, and he shares Chuck Wendig’s contempt for reactionary nationalist xenophobia into the bargain.

Natalie is an expectant mother living in Stoughton, MA, near Boston, with her husband Paul. We fade in with the outbreak already well underway. No one is sure how this strain of rabies emerged, though it has been an unusually hot summer. Shelters have been set up for citizens who are not able, for whatever reason, to shelter in place. Naturally, Facebook groups full of frightened citizens spreading rumors and misinformation are helping no one. It’s a horrific situation, especially for a woman whose baby is due in fifteen days. And it’s about to get unbearably worse. Paul has no sooner gotten home from the grocery store, where tension is fast approaching riot levels, than an infected neighbor bursts into the house, kills Paul, and delivers a nasty bite to Natalie’s arm before she’s able to fight him off and escape.

The rest of the book plays out over the course of the next 3-4 hours. This is an especially ruthless new strain of rabies known for just how quickly it spreads to the brain, at which point the infected are beyond saving. Many human victims have been showing the first signs within an hour of exposure. Natalie makes her way to the home of her college BFF, Ramola Sherman, a UK immigrant of Indian descent, who is now an established pediatrician. It becomes clear that delivering Natalie’s baby right away via C-section is vital. But even though Ramola is able to get Natalie to the hospital where she works, the whole facility is quickly overwhelmed, and now Natalie’s main hope lies in getting to a clinic about five miles further on. With everything they’ll have to go through to get there, it might as well be on the moon.

Keeping his story under 300 pages, Tremblay maintains a steady pace that delivers tender and funny character moments punctuated by almost unbearable tension. At first it feels a bit like Natalie isn’t grieving for Paul as deeply as you’d think she should, but it quickly makes sense that she’s on an emotional knife edge, barely keeping herself together as she weighs everything that has just happened with what has to happen, and quickly, to make sure the baby survives. Natalie channels much of her stress by recording messages for the baby into an app on her phone.

Now, a bitter old critic might take the view that putting a pregnant woman in peril is more than just a slightly cynical and manipulative way to push your audience’s buttons. But Tremblay admirably never falls into any easy traps here. As a plot device, Natalie’s pregnancy made me think Tremblay was addressing a common concern among the Millennial generation, about the wisdom of starting families and raising children into a world where income inequality, a volatile political landscape, and climate change might not leave those kids much of an earth to inherit. Front and center is the friendship between the two women, which feels real. If anything, Natalie is totally unsentimental about being pregnant, having once extracted a promise from Paul that if ever a situation arises where it becomes a choice between Natalie or her baby, don’t choose the baby. But now with her own fate making itself clearer by the minute, Natalie is now sometimes far more reckless in her determination than Ramola, whose nurturing doctorly character makes her overly cautious by nature.

There will be two other characters the women meet on their odyssey, who will be familiar to longtime readers of Tremblay’s books. In them, we have a second friendship whose bond is tested by crisis. There’s an epilogue that feels a little less emotionally satisfying than I might have liked. But it doesn’t take anything away from the inevitable — yet still very powerful — climax. Anyone who’s a committed fan of horror fiction will gladly tell you, even though it seems like a paradox, how horror is a genre that builds empathy in its audience like no other. Not all of us will be lucky enough to have someone who cares nearby when the end comes. But that isn’t what Survivor Song wants us to dwell on. It’s about recognizing who really is most important to us in our lives right now, and making sure those people know it, while we’re all still here. Do that, and we can survive almost anything.