Survivor Song tells the story of a rabies-like epidemic through the lens of a friendship between the very-pregnant-and-freshly-bitten Natalie, and the fiercely-independent-and-protective-pediatrician Ramola. Natalie and Ramola have been friends since their days in college, and I found this to be a touching and realistic portrayal of a friendship forged in late-night chats over wine and cheese boards – a friendship that changes slowly as the women grow up and discover more about themselves, and then rapidly as the story progresses.
In the opening pages of the novel, Natalie is hiding in her house while her husband goes to fetch groceries. The North-East corner of the United States is already on lock-down, with very little known about the new strain of rabies that is crippling the nation and overwhelming hospitals. As her husband returns home with their share of rations, a frenzied infected man bursts through the door behind him. Natalie’s husband is mauled and killed, and Natalie escapes with a bite to her upper arm. In a panic, she drives to Ramola’s house for aid and their story begins.
Reading Survivor Song felt like watching a Netflix original movie – a good one at that. It was short, fast, and very engaging. Tremblay’s narrative verges on poetic at times and is beautifully descriptive and affecting. The characters that Natalie and Ramola encounter upon the way – an overworked doctor doing her best in a time of crisis, two idiotic but endearing teenagers living out their ‘zombie apocalypse’ fantasies, and a group of reddit-conspiracy fueled suburban dads who have armed and appointed themselves as saviours of the neighbourhood – add necessary foils to the story.
It’s not easy to write a female character that speaks directly to me, but Ramola did so in spades. Take this passage:
Happiness held no nuance or compromise, did not allow for examination, did not allow the hopeful, hungry will that fills the vacuum of failure and what-might’ve-beens, nor did it allow for the sweetness of surprise. Happiness was as rigid in its demands to adherence as a calendar shouting about compulsory date nights. Happiness was for dogs, lovely creatures though they were.”
I want to print that on a sweater and never take it off.
Obviously, reading a story about an epidemic during a pandemic is a surreal experience. Tremblay must have penned this novel before Covid-19 descended upon the world, but he clearly did his research. His references to blockades, N95 masks, lockdowns and quarantines were all to easy to visualise. As was the folly of humanity:
In the final tally of what will be considered the end of the epidemic (but not, to be clear, the end of the virus; it will burrow, digging in like a nasty tick; it will migrate; and it will return all but encouraged and welcomes in a country where science and forethought are allows to be dirty words, where humanity’s greatest invention – the vaccine – is smeared and villified by narcissistic, purposeful fools [the most dangerous kind], where fear is harvested for fame, profit, and self-esteem), almost ten thousand people will have died.
If that doesn’t give you chills, nothing will.
If you’re looking for a thrilling way to spend an evening in, then do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of Survivor Song.
Five uncontrollable hydrophobic outbursts out of five.