Reactions to Ling Ma’s ‘Severance’

Severance by Ling Ma

At the end of last month I wrote about Laura Van Den Berg’s novel Find Me—an oh so relevant end of the world type of story we can’t escape in fiction or in real life. And while I had a difficult time getting through the plot of Find Me, I had the opposite experience while reading Severance by Ling Ma a couple weeks prior. Severance follows a similar plot to Find Me in that it’s set during a worldwide pandemic that starts with sickness and ends with death. Nothing like what we’re currently experiencing at all! This isn’t too close to home! Unlike with the previous novel mentioned, I read Severance in a couple hours and loved every page. Ma expertly crafts a witty and suspenseful novel where the protagonist Candace finds herself alone and stuck in the brutality of working culture while everyone else has fled for safety in the pandemic. In short, Severance isn’t just about widespread sickness, but about connections to other people and how capitalism is the scariest ill we know.

I’ll try not to spoil the ending of Severance like I have with the past few books because this novel is too relevant and beautiful to not read for yourselves. Candace is a young first generation professional whose parents immigrated to New York City from China and recently passed away. She works for a book publishing company called Spectra where she oversees the Christian book printing. When a plague called Shen Fever sweeps across the world, Candace is recruited to be one of Spectra’s few in-house workers to continue operations while everyone else works from home or flees the city. Shen Fever starts as memory loss and causes the infected person to repeat one action over and over until they are killed or die. Surprisingly, Candace continues working hard in the almost empty mega office while the others slowly become infected or they leave for another location. Once she finally decides that working completely by herself during a pandemic is no longer sustainable, she meets a group of survivors led by a power-hungry man named Bob who promises to take them all to a shelter called The Facility. Eventually Candace realizes her own strength while the group starts splintering off and Bob takes even more control over their every move. The ensuing power struggle becomes the focal point of the novel while alternating chapters show what Candace’s life was like when she was alone during the pandemic.

I loved Severance not because it’s exactly the same situation we’re living in now, but because Ma beautifully crafts each scene and develops the characters so they feel real. Candace isn’t initially a sympathetic character, but she becomes someone I want to live despite the dangerous circumstances. And while Bob is like so many men I’ve known and interacted with, I don’t hate him because Ma’s illustration of his character is full and interesting. He’s not just a villain but someone with many pros and (mostly) cons. I loved how Ma built up suspense about the pandemic (how did it start, why did it affect people the way it did, how were some immune?) and where Candace and the group would end up without directly telling the audience. In the beginning of the story, Candace is weak and introverted and afraid of announcing what she wants, while in the end, she’s the strongest character of them all. The ending of the story (again, not spoiling it) was full of hope for Candace, which is something she lacked throughout the entirety of the novel. I rooted for her and her cautiously optimistic future and I hope that Severance is eventually made into a movie one day! I would give the book 9/10 stars.