I decided to read Severance (2018) by Ling Ma after seeing it on NPR’s Best Books of 2018 List because it looked interesting and was a little bit outside my wheelhouse. I’m up for a Dystopian novel every once in a while, but the ones I read are more like adventure stories. Severance is different. It’s a little slower and more melancholy. The book mirrors our own lives in order to make us wonder how far from the sick we really are.
Candace Chen is a first-generation American living in New York City. After a period of idle wasting after college that many of us can probably relate to, she stumbles into a tolerable job publishing Bibles. It’s not fulfilling work, but it pays the bills. She often works with companies in China for a number of different Bible publications.
Shen Fever begins in China; no one really knows how or why, and it is spreading around the world before people really start noticing it. Candace figured something was going wrong only after one of her neighbors and one of her coworkers is hit. The sickness causes people to get stuck doing rote tasks in a brain dead manner, unable to take care of their real needs. She gets a hint of how desperate things are in China after talking to one of her suppliers there. Candace does not get sick and is one of the few people left in the office when management offers her a lot of money to continue showing up at the office for the next couple of months. She agrees, and that’s how she finds herself alone in New York City, heading up an office for a company that barely exists.
Candace had been dating a man for quite a while, but just before Shen Fever hit, he decided to move away from the city, and Candace did not want to go with him. In the end, she finally leaves New York City only when there is nothing left. She comes across a small group of other survivors, led by Bob, the IT guy. The group has some very interesting, if disturbing dynamics. They are on their way to a location where they think they might find other survivors.
Bob turns out to be crazy and controlling. When he finds out that Candace is pregnant, he locks her up in a store in the mall in order to “protect the baby.” Candace is afraid that he will kill her once she gives birth and is no longer as useful.
The novel is split up into three interweaving time periods. The most recent is the time that Candace spends with the small group of survivors. However, Ma also describes the onset of Shen Fever in New York City and how it caused the downfall of society. Finally, there are flashbacks to Candace’s childhood, describing her growing up in the United States with her Chinese parents. Her father loved America and the choices it gave him while her mother only wanted to go back home.
I liked this book, but I’m finding it difficult to describe. The tone was sometimes a little scary, sometimes eerie, and sometimes just a story about people. Candace wasn’t always the most sympathetic of characters, and the book wasn’t always a joy to read. Ma seemed to have so much going on that I sometimes wondered if I was missing something that tied it all together. However, it was definitely original and memorable. I think it would be a good book for a book club.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.