SEVERANCE by Ling Ma

From the Back Cover

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine.  With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty.  She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.  So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York.  Then Shen Fever spreads.  Families flee.  Companies halt operations.  The subways squeak to a halt.  Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff.  Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.  Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though.  Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob.  They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew.  But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit.  Should she escape from her rescuers?

My Thoughts

Ling Ma’s SEVERANCE was a fantastic surprise!  It’s a difficult book to summarize, as it’s about so many things… the dangers of routine; memories and family; globalization, capitalization, and immigration; offshoring, tourism, and travel bans.  The book revolves around the fictitious “Shen Fever” outbreak and focuses on our main character Candace’s experiences both before and after the fever hits, and in the background is Ma’s insightful social commentary, which brings the book to a whole new level.

“Memories beget memories.  Shen fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories.  But what is the difference between the fevered and us?  Because I remember too, I remember perfectly.  My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat.  And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop.”

SEVERANCE’s chapters alternate between before and after the outbreak; the “before” section reads like a typical contemporary millennial workplace novel a la MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION, and the “after” chapters feel more along the lines of a post apocalyptic survival story such as THE MAZE RUNNER, etc.  Ma’s method of back-and-forth storytelling is incredibly successful; by simultaneously telling two stories, she is able to build suspense and leave her audience wondering what comes next for Candace.  I read this book in a single night; once I started, it was nearly impossible for me to put down.  I felt like I had to keep reading for Candace’s sake!

“A second chance doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.  In many ways, it is the more difficult thing.  Because a second chance means that you have to try harder.  You must rise to the challenge without the blind optimism of ignorance.”

Between Ma’s masterful storytelling and the scope of topics she covers, SEVERANCE is an intensely urgent novel.  I am very impressed by this debut novel and I’m desperate to read more from Ling Ma!

Further Reading

“Routine Made Everything Possible: An Interview with Ling Ma” by Jen Lue, The Margins
“In ‘Severance,’ Ling Ma Destroys New York City” by Adam Morgan, Chicago Review of Books
“Ling Ma’s ‘Severance’ Captures the Bleak, Fatalistic Mood of 2018” by Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker

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