I tried to read this gem the first few weeks after the pandemic broke out in New York. Couldn’t do it. As it is significantly better than the other pandemic reads (Killing Williamsburg and Zone One), the fact that it dealt with a terrifying virus from China was hitting too close to home. It took months to work up the gumption to return to it. And I’m glad I did, because it is really good.
Yes, the focus of it is a pandemic ruining the world. Shen Fever is similar to the coronavirus but worse and even more fatal. And the ways it talked about impacting New York City hit really close to home. At the same time, this is a story about one person who has to shift with the winds of change constantly, from moving to a different continent as a little one, over to finding herself (inevitably in NYC) and finally, to hitting the road with some strangers whilst trying to avoid death.
The three parts of the story are told in non-linear fashion and of the three, only the third one doesn’t work well enough. We don’t spend enough time with Candace’s travel companions for me to feel invested in the consequences. Even when the stakes are raised (no spoilers), it was the weakest part of the story and the only reason why the book is getting four stars.
But the other two hit hard: both detailing her time in New York before and while it’s falling apart along with her childhood being raised by Chinese parents caught with a foot in both worlds. I’ve never read an interview with Ling Ma but in glancing at her biography, some of the details feel autobiographical. The personal nature gives the book a deeper feel.
Severance also accomplishes what it has been lauded for: tapping into the post-Reagan millennial angst of having everything we want consumer wise and nothing we need in terms of healthcare, safety, quality of life, etc. Its office politics are familiar and frustrating because many of us have been there. That Candace is the last person standing is almost symbolic of our generation’s resiliency against a constant tide of bs.
In terms of fiction, this is probably the best pre-coronavirus book to deal with the effects of the coronavirus.