As someone who is historically not the biggest fan of the apocalypse genre of novels I was astonished over how much I enjoyed Severance by Ling Ma. This incredibly engaging novel managed to grasp and hold my attention enough that I read it in a single sitting, as I found myself captivated by its protagonist, Candace Chen, and the shape that her narrative takes throughout this book.
Part of the reason I was so surprised about liking Severance so much is that it includes three storytelling stylistic choices that I usually dislike. That is to say that the book is told in the first person, the dialogue is not punctuated any differently from the inner monologue, and the storytelling is inconsistently nonlinear. Specifically, after the prologue sets up the story the narrative is split between Candace during the events of her life that lead up to the break out of Shen fever and the slow dissolution of society, and a Candace who has newly joined with a small band of survivors who are leaving New York and its area for “The Facility”, which is a safe space located outside of Chicago that they are promised by their leader, Bob. The chapters alternate between these two perspectives, but within the chapters dips are taken even further back into Candace’s past to shade in the full story of her life.
The fact that this novel does so much jumping around is something that could have gotten very tiresome, not to mention needlessly confusing, but the way that everything came together piece by piece became a fun sort of game for me, one where I got the new snippet of information just as I was getting most eager for it, and so I never got bored or annoyed about information being withheld.
I’ve always felt that one of the most important parts of a novel is to have a protagonist that readers can understand. As I read Severance there were many times that I didn’t like Candace, or didn’t agree with the course of action that she took, but her actions were, at least in my view, completely internally consistent with her character, and so I never considered anything that occured to be a stretch of the imagination. There were certainly times when I considered her responses to situations foolish or irrational, but never uncharacteristic. Part of this is because as a reader I got to know her character so intimately. Ling Ma expertly uses her fluid narration style to shape the entire course of Candace’s life from when she was a young girl in Fuzhou with her parents, to when her parents left for the United States, and then the path she took once she joined them there, through high school, college, moving to New York, and how her status as an orphan with nothing to anchor her but the city led her to to the present apocalyptic scenario where she is forced to leave it behind. None of this path is linear, but all of it is brought together in the text.
It felt counterintuitive when I realized it, but given that this book is one that catalogues the destruction of society and everyday life, I was astounded by the vivid moments in which said life came alive in the novel. Throughout the novel Ling Ma creates a delicate and yet moving balance between the rote sequences of everyday life and the consequences of the gradual severance of everything that holds that life together. One of the ways in which this is most masterfully done is in the way that “the fevered” are described.
The plague that has overcome New York and the relevant parts of the world within Severance is a fungal disease called Shen Fever, the symptoms of which include those like the flu, but also influence the behaviors of those infected in that rather than lying in bed sick, they become consumed by repetitive and compulsive behaviors that they exhibited in life, which results in things like folding and refolding clothes, over-watering the plants, or going through the motions of setting the table and eating dinner with empty plates and cutlery.
Throughout the novel the fevered are distinct because they are unaware of the decomposing and disrupted world around them, consumed with the pattern of behavior that they exhibited before the world fell apart. In a way Shen Fever is portrayed as an almost more haunting and unsettling disease and form of apocalypse than simply that of a world where monsters are out to eat people, because there is nothing to fight, except perhaps their fellow survivors.
The most disturbing thing about the world of Severance is that it feels like the world that we live in shifted ever so slightly, and any second now we could tip ourselves into it, or something very much the same. While I did enjoy my read, I was also glad to set it aside and spend time with family rather than in such a desolate and empty world. I do recommend Severance as a quality novel, though I warn that it remains one that is not for the faint of heart.