SEVERANCE book review

    “To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

    Ling Ma

    Title: Severance

    Author: Ling Ma

    Published: 2018

    Format: E-book, 297 pages

    Typical time to read: 5.5 hours

    I hastily finished Severance as COVID-19 hit the US because the themes in Ma’s story were too close to home. It’s a little uncomfortable when the vividly painted reality of an apocalypse in the book you are reading crosses with the headlines of the daily news.

    Severance explores a world overcome by Shen Fever from the perspective of our narrator Candace, a Chinese-American woman in her early 20s. Candace’s narration alternates between her apocalyptic present and her past, both as an immigrant from China growing up in the Midwest and as an adult New York City resident leading up to “the End.” The fever is caused by a fungal infection. The victim develops a fever and loses the ability to think about essential activities, like eating. With glassy eyes, they wander around familiar places repeating routine tasks, like setting the table or folding clothes.

    Candance grew up as an only child and lost both her parents before “The End” began in the story. In New York, she survived on inheritance money and aimlessly experimented with photography and socializing with other confused young people until an older, married man she was sleeping with got her an interview at his brother’s book publishing company. Ma illustrates office politics with characters like the charismatic boss in the luxurious glass-walled office and the Art department girls. Candace diligently fulfills her Bible department duties. Identity confusion shadows the occasional trips she makes to China to address supply chain matters. As Candace adjusts to her new job, she begins dating a guy her age who remains her boyfriend for the five years before “The End.” Her childhood flashbacks detail the story of her father’s perseverance in succeeding as an American university student and then securing a safe business job afterward. Her mother’s challenges include leaving 4-year-old Candace in China until they had enough money to bring her to this country that never seemed to feel like home. Her mother’s voice and likeness return to Candace with instruction and motivation as she faces the most significant challenges of her present. The present unfolds into a small group of “survivors” who travel west together, raiding homes and stores for supplies along the way.

    Ma’s elegant writing gracefully paints a New York City lifestyle with smooth edges, making it easy to flow through the chaos of the content. The lack of quotation marks around dialogue could go either way for the reader. For me, it was a cause for pause a few times when I realized someone was talking, and my type-A personality forced me to go back and re-read the sentence with the correct perspective of the one speaking. Regardless of the unique style, I felt immersed in the mind of the narrator consistently throughout the alternating timelines. I appreciate Ma’s skill and creativity in beautifully weaving such a complex product.

    Ma artfully presented several discussion-worthy themes in the novel, including self-worth, work culture, and capitalism. The ones that stuck out most to me included immigration and human behavior in the face of a pandemic. The sacrifice and strength illustrated in the immigrant stories are inspiring. They give me a jolt of gratitude and motivation to take advantage of new opportunities. Ma’s story did not disappoint here. The latter theme needs no explanation. We are facing a lot of unknowns with the current pandemic, and it’s hard to answer that question everyone is texting each other, “What do you think about all of this virus stuff?”

    I avoided the question, like all the issues piling up in my mind lately, and appreciated diving into Candace’s narration to consider the problem from a safer distance, surrounded by life concerns different from my own. Her narrative steadily laid out the scenes, and she put one foot in front of the other to march through them. She didn’t seem too concerned with preparing for the future, and she never panicked. She kept doing her job and let the events play out as they would. The chaos of the people or the circumstances around her didn’t overwhelm her. She stayed her course until she needed to make a change. Candace identified new feelings and addressed them without letting them control her.

    Ma’s apocalyptic plot left me feeling a little uneasy in light of current events. However, the approach presented to facing such circumstances gave me peace. It gave me the courage to meet some of those uncomfortable questions weighing on my reality.

    My connection with Ma’s story inspired several goals to help me remain grounded through this crisis. I live with what I have on hand and only go to stores, restaurants, and shops when it is essential. It’s easier to do as a single person, I know, but I deserve credit for successfully resisting the urge to grab a gelato during several gloriously warm, spring days. I listen to public health experts and avoid succumbing to panic in the media by avoiding it when I can. My neighbors fill me in on the latest fear story while we walk the pups each evening, and I admit I don’t watch the news, but I fill them in on what I’ve read from the CDC, and we move on to critiquing another neighbor’s poor choice in landscaping upgrades. Finally, I acknowledge how fortunate I am to have this extra time at home to enjoy my pup and calls to my friends and family. My mom only tolerates me for about 20 minutes of chatter, but she wraps it up with a distance hug, and “everything will work out.” It always makes me feel better.

    I recommend this book for anyone inspired by immigration stories or seeking guidance on remaining calm in a sea of chaos. Ma’s writing style is a pleasure to consume, and it’s a healthier version of virus media if you cannot get enough.


    Rating: 10 out of 10.


    Rating: 10 out of 10.


    Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

    Rating Summary: 9.5

    Dry-humor, smooth prose, a little scary with current events

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