Severance: A Novel by Ling Ma


The key thing, we reminded ourselves, was never to stop, to always keep going, even when the past called us back to a time and place we still leaned toward, still sang of, in quieter moments.

Candace Chen, daughter of  Chinese immigrant parents, wasn’t there at the Beginning when everyone else was stalking Wal-Mart, googling survival, none of that. She was living on routine, one of the last to leave New York, on automatic working in her Manhattan office on a bible for teens. As it all falls apart, she is like a ghost keeping record with photographs of New York on her blog. Solitude is not made for survival. It is a Yellow Cab that becomes her ‘in’ with Bob and the group, but is it her salvation? The End, she assumed, was near and as others fell ill around her with Shen Fever, she waited to become infected herself. It didn’t happen. Surely she wasn’t much different, like a record skipping in place, doing the same thing over and over, that’s the illness. Regretting the choice she made to stay behind, even when her boyfriend encouraged her to leave New York with him, his plan to sail a yacht with his friend. The world is crumbling, it’s interesting that it takes an apocalypse for her to leave, so marred in her routine that not even love could budge her. Her hand is forced by circumstances this time. Why is she immune? None of us are, are we? Trapped in our jobs, noses in our phones, so many days often like a repeat of the one before. Wrapped up in nonsense, so much processed garbage we eat and put in our heads. Well…

The Facility is a place where they can all begin again, if they make it there. Bob has big plans, it’s vital they follow rules! It’s much like immigration, if you think about it. There is this idea of a new world born out of destruction, fear of the unknown, unsure who to trust. Hell is a shopping mall for me though, and it’s clever that she chose that location. You could put a lot of meaning into that, consumerism, a mall could be as self-sustaining, self-contained as she was while working on the teen gem bible. Her boyfriend was sick of that very world, here she is still trapped in it. Too, you can’t ‘opt out’- like she feels about Jonathan when faced with his idealism. It would seem the only way to overhaul the way we all live the whole world around is a pandemic. We are all of us so deep in this mess.

On their journey, they sweep through houses, past dead people for supplies. Memories are poison. How much worse when ‘stalking ones own homes’? It’s strange and eerie how people behave when infected. Candace revisits the past, everything that led her here, so the novel isn’t just another postapocalyptic struggle. Her love for Jonathan and her decision to stay in the life she didn’t even much like is too familiar to many of us. Why don’t we break away? Why do we cling fiercely to repetition, to the devil we know?

Bob is adamant they will do better this time, even if he has to go to great lengths to save people from themselves and keep them as one would prisoners. As if people won’t just ruin it all again. We are creatures of habit, more than we admit. The story Ling Ma shares about the members of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day saints, their exodus, the only choice that remained for them to leave with their old world in ruins isn’t lost on me. Her own parents being immigrants too had to venture into the unknown, to America. Honestly, the novel is more literary fiction to me than sci-fi, I rather liked her flashbacks, the ‘pre-apocalyptic’ memories. The pacing might not work for readers that prefer action. The world stands still, and we are left with the destruction of our own making. Candace has her own second chance that may well have nothing to do with Bob and his visions for a new future but will she have the strength?

You can’t dive too deep into the past, nor can you live a life of meaning floating along the shallows.

Publication Date: August 14, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux