In the spirit of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good/adequate/completed review, I’m just going to try and get my thoughts down about this book.
Severance was one of my it’s->$4.99-on-Kindle-so-if-I-have-even-the-vaguest-interest-I-will-buy-it impulse purchases. I read the critics’ reviews on Amazon and friends’ ratings on Goodreads, skimmed the free sample to get a sense of what it was about, and was hooked. Unfortunately, my interest had waned by about the third chapter.
Severance, which was written in 2018, takes place in 2011 and spans about 4-6 months in the life of Candace Chen, a New Yorker who wakes up in the morning and goes to work doing a corporate job she has little interest in, but is decently good at. Recently, however, her disaffected routine has been shaken by the news of a dangerous and fast-spreading disease originating in China, where she was born. (Again, I would like to stress that this was written in 2018. The talk of N95 masks and travel bans, and the descriptions of the slow spread of the virus around the world are chilling for this reason alone.) The disease is called “Shen Fever” and it is reportedly spread by fungal spores. Affected people begin to mindlessly repeat everyday tasks until they die of malnourishment or mercy killing. Once a person becomes fevered, there is no cure.
The first person narration jumps around three separate timelines and genres: post-apocalypse road trip, tracing Candace’s journey after she flees New York and joins a group of other survivors as they try to make a life for themselves in a deserted, infrastructureless, phoneless, internetless new word; present-apocalypse office satire, as Candace breaks up with her boyfriend and watches New York slowly fall apart around her; and pre-apocalypse immigration story, as Candace remembers her parents, their journey to America, and her life before New York.
In Candace’s voice, Ling Ma’s writing is simultaneously nonchalant and detached, which I felt distanced me from investment in the emotions of the characters, yet moody and immersive, giving me an unnerved feeling that it was difficult to shake.
I absolutely loved the childhood portions of the novel, where Ling Ma’s lyrical words paint bright, vivid pictures of life in China and life as a child. The descriptions of family relationships and expectations and love and disappointment were so lovely, even when they weren’t always nice. Unfortunately, the bulk of the novel takes place during Candace’s young adulthood, and I have to admit that I didn’t find much new, interesting, or funny in the “corporate satire” part (I kept looking up tags on Goodreads thinking I’d made up the fact that people called this book funny, but nope, I didn’t and they do and we clearly have very different senses of humour), and the road trip/survival story either needed a lot more detail and characterization, or a lot less, but felt a bit half-baked as is.
And then there’s the ending. (No spoilers, though.) It’s always tricky to end a dystopia/zombie story – do you go hopeful and risk accusations that it was cheap, too easy, that you chickened out? or do you go pessimistic and risk accusations of nihilism and pointlessness, frustrating the audience? Or do you go a third way? Something absurd or something ambiguous? How do you provide a satisfying conclusion? I don’t know, but I do know this wasn’t it.
So, in summation, I didn’t enjoy the book much at all and found most of it a slog, but I’m also absolutely going to check out any new work by Ling Ma.