Book Review: Severance by Ling Ma
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If you enjoyed this book or want something with a super similar feel in the YA world check out This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers.
Overview: A pandemic has hit New York and the rest of the world. A fungal infection that leaves people stuck in a loop, repeating familiar daily tasks until they ultimately degenerate. It starts as a whisper of something like West Nile virus before it ravages entire continent with an uncontrollable spread–not that it seems like much of anyone tried to stop it. Candace is one of the last survivors in New York who hasn't become Fevered, and she runs a photo blog with dispatches about a crumbling New York. Eventually, even Candace has to leave, linking up with a rouge group of survivors who could mean salvation or devastation. The story of the End, as she refers to it, is interlaced with chapters about the final days leading up to destruction, her relationships, and her history. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 This book sits as easily on the literary fiction shelf as it does science fiction because this is a book less about the end of the world and more about Candace. We learn about the surface level intricacies of the Fever without diving into the details of that reality. We only need to know as much about them as they impact Candace's life. We get to know her quite well as the book unfolds, alternating between present day Candace and stories from her childhood and young adulthood, moving to New York, getting her first job, and falling in love. She's struggled to find her footing, existing in different spaces without ever fully being satisfied with them. But she has will and strength, and the voice of her parents in her head telling her the importance of working to the best of your ability, no matter what you do.
Though both of her parents are deceased in the present time, many of the stories told throughout the book detail their experience as Chinese immigrants. Her mother struggles to find happiness in America; her father never wants to return to China. There's a repeated motif about her mother's obsession with skincare regimens that stick with Candace even in the end. The stories reveal tense and strained relationships that are still deeply anchored by love and by a sense of connection and shared understanding.
Then we meet Jonathan who lives his life in the opposite fashion as Candace. While Candace took a steady job that payed enough and gave her something to do, Jonathan railed against corporate confinement and rules, instead choosing to take freelance writing gigs and odd jobs. He thrives in an instability that Candace shies away from given her childhood. Still, there's an interesting depth given to their evolving love story as they weigh their connection against their divergent paths. Candace's friends and co-workers finish filling out her life in New York with surprising depth for their brief time on the page.
The least developed of the characters are Candace's companions after she flees New York. We know their archetypes and roles in the community of sorts, but there are only a few that we see in more depth. Interestingly, the actual apocalypse is the smallest part of the novel. This also seems to be a commentary on the fragmented, difficult parts of human nature that emerge in the face of a truly dire situation. It does not bring out the best in us, as many of us have experienced in recent years.
Plot: 4 The book is full of interesting twists and turns. What makes it particularly compelling is that the chapters about her childhood, business trips to China, or her relationship with Jonathan are just as interesting, if not more so, than the recounting of the true apocalypse state. If you're looking for a classic science fiction novel, you'll likely be disappointed, but if you're a fan of general fiction, the story here offers an accessible way to shake up your reading. With the chapters moving through time, though largely progressing chronologically, you build up a fondness for Candace as well as an understanding for her motivations as we watch her progress through her life which heightens the stakes of her present apocalyptic situation she has to navigate. But, again, the tribulations of the apocalypse are more interpersonal than they are environmental. We never really worry that Candace will become Fevered.
Writing: 4 I am in utter shock that this book is set in the early 2010s, published in 2018 and got so many details about how a global pandemic would go down. There are moments that are utterly eerie. The writing here is direct, clear, and concise while still leaving room for emotionality between the lines. Candace is pragmatic and brings that outlook to the way she tells stories, but she's also tenderhearted under her carefully considered exterior. She makes the perfect narrator to give a clearheaded account of the crumbling of society. She's relatable and sympathetic without ever getting too caught up in the existential crisis that we all know a wave of illness can bring. The book is an interesting character portrait with a plot that keeps up with moving you through the book at a fast pace. There's an attention to detail and a complete world without getting too caught up in the world building, and the story absolutely washes over in an all encompassing way.
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