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Survivor Song, by Paul Tremblay (review)

There has only been one other book I've read that I can recall throwing across the room after finishing the last page.


So, congrats, SURVIVOR SONG, for now being part of that elite club.


Paul Tremblay (a fellow MA resident) has been called this generation's Stephen King, and in many ways, his books do live up to the title: they mix horror with humanity in a compulsively-readable appeal.


Like King's THE STAND, this is a story of people on the run from a virus that turns its victims into zombie-like psychopaths. However, it's this expedition that is the book's first major flaw.


Unlike THE STAND's cross-country trek, though, in SURVIVOR SONG, our protagonists -- pediatric doctor Ramola and her pregnant best friend Natalie -- are basically only traveling a few miles. The problem with this short distance is that it feels so much longer when you're following them on it. There could have been some scenes of nail-biting suspense as they encounter all manner of dangerous roadblocks, there's very little excitement to be found, and that's a real lost opportunity. Instead, the two ladies, annoyingly calling each other by their college nicknames, Rams and Nats, bump into two kids on BMX bikes who speak in a lingo that I, as a middle school English teacher, have never heard kids speak, and who are unusually equipped with a backpack of sanitizer and a "staff" as a weapon. There are a few other run-ins, but none of them really make the reader feel any concern, despite Rams and Nats freaking out.


You see, Nats was bitten by one of these infected persons, so Rams is following her Hippocratic Oath by trying to save her, and her unborn child, before it's too late. Along their crosstown jaunt, Nats records a farewell diary of sorts on an app on her phone (which she says is a "song," alluding to catchy but nonsensical title). She assumes she'll never meet her offspring, and she's forced Rams into adopting the baby if worse comes to worse.


I know in terrible situations that people will resort to humor to diffuse the tension, but this book has too much of it. Nats is constantly cracking (weak) jokes, often irritating Rams and the reader (for good reason). So much so, in fact, that it ends up negating any horror Tremblay does manage to inject. His goal might have been to keep the reader off-balance -- make us laugh then shock us with the sudden turn -- but neither extreme is effective.


Then, there's the ending. After pushing through 300 pages, sometimes feeling as futile as Rams and Nat on their sojourn for a hospital to deliver the baby, the reader is slapped in the face with that insult of an endpoint. If Tremblay's goal was to point out the hopelessness of the situation, and maybe, by extension, that humanity is screwed if we can't help each other more...well, then, bravo. I didn't expect an uplifting ending, but I did hope for a satisfying one that didn't make me feel like I had wasted several hours of my life. If I had been with Rams at this point, I would've just asked to be bitten and put out of my misery. There are survivors here, nor is this book anything close to an enjoyable song.


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