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Staff Picks: Severance

Although published pre-COVID, Ling Ma’s brilliant debut novel Severance eerily mirrors the pandemic that has upended our world for the past year and a half.

cover artIn Severance, Shen Fever is the devastating disease, a bizarre syndrome that induces a zombie-like feverish condition, which proves fatal for anyone infected. Main character Candace Chen, a twentysomething first-generation American, is one of the few survivors. The story time-jumps between the present and various periods leading up to the epidemic’s onset, providing insight into Candace’s backstory.

Born in China, Candace’s parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was very young to find work, leaving her in China with family. They reunite when she is six and settle in Utah, where Candace spends her childhood. She later becomes a proud New York millennial working in publishing at a rather unexciting job, but one that has promise and allows her to enjoy the city lifestyle.

cover artWhen Shen Fever hits, she doesn’t pay much attention at first because she is preoccupied with the fact her boyfriend Jonathan has announced he is leaving for Chicago, and ironically discovers she is pregnant soon after. She hides this secret from everyone (including Jonathan) and keeps on working even as the staff in her office dwindles to a sparse few, public transportation grinds to a halt and stores shutter their doors. She eventually decides to leave New York, hooking up with a group of other survivors headed by a power-hungry former IT specialist named Bob.

Ma’s writing is beautifully crafted, which might seem an odd description for a novel with an apocalyptic bent. But Severance is not only about a pandemic and its aftermath … the parallel narrative about Candace’s experience and perspective as a Chinese American is just as riveting. Although she has spent the bulk of her life in the U.S., she still has some vague memories of the culture and extended family she left behind in China, like a fragile string stretching her between two worlds. As revealed by her flashbacks, when she travels to China on business pre-Shen Fever, she realizes how much of her native language and heritage she has suppressed and forgotten. The time away from her parents when she was very young had a lasting impact, resulting in trust and commitment issues.

This feeling resonates to other parts of her life. She wants to fit in with the group of other survivors but often feels she doesn’t. She is scared and leery, particularly of Bob (for good reason, as is evident from his violent outbursts) and hoards her pregnancy secret like a coveted winning poker card. This ultimately helps her survive, but will she remain alone and distanced even after giving birth to her child? With its overarching themes of sacrifice, loss, struggle and endurance, Severance is a relatable, thought-provoking tale.

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