Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma

Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma

Fiction: Severance, Ling Ma

Severance is an odd novel, really almost three novellas telling the story of one person. Candace Chen is a millennial living in NYC. Born in China and raised in Utah, Candace loves her routine. Her job for a printing company has her overseeing the production of Bibles target marketed toward specific audiences. Her nights are usually spent with her boyfriend watching movies projected against the wall. Occasionally she dreams of something less predictable, but the truth is that she likes her routines, she takes comfort in the familiar, and although moving to NYC disrupted her previous routines, she has substituted those old ones for new ones that she is unwilling to change.


The book jumps around Candace’s timeline, from childhood in China and Utah to her early days in NY to a few years later when the arrival of the Shen virus decimates the city to her current situation traveling with a group of refugees to “the facility,” a place where they have been assured they will be safe. The refugees are led by a charismatic figure named Bob, a man who uses charm and manipulation to keep them together and is someone Candace does not trust.


Shen fever is a plague that strikes first in China then spreads around the world. Its symptoms initially mimic the common cold, but once the fever strikes people become frozen in routines they cannot escape. Mothers set tables for meals that are not there. Retailers fold clothes again and again and again. Taxi drivers wander through the city aimlessly. Candace is one of the fortunate few who does not contract the disease. Her routine has already been disrupted before the arrival of the disease, and not to give away any spoilers but I cannot help but wonder whether it is less a matter of exposure to the fungus that keeps her safe or whether it is the disruption of her predictable life.


Candace documents the collapse of the city on her photoblog NYGhost, posting pictures of flooded subways, empty stores, abandoned vehicles, and other images of a forsaken city. Eventually, though, she has to leave in order to survive. It’s a rather chilling view of how quickly a city can collapse: the time from the virus first appearing in the city to the time when she must flee in order to survive is only a matter of months. We rely so much on technology that it is easy to forget that the true infrastructure that lets everything continue is people doing their routine jobs. Without people, there are no trains, there is no electricity, there is no Internet, there are no book blogs–what a horrible world that would be!


Severance is a coming of age story. It is an examination of the challenges of living an ordinary modern life. And it is a look at a dystopian near future. These three stories woven together by the one life they examine are each powerful alone, but together they make a rich and complex examination of both the meaning and meaninglessness of modern life.

Book Review: Severance, Ling Ma


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.