Book Review: Severance by Ling Ma

Review by Elaine Mead

“To live in a city is to live the life that it was built for, to adapt to its schedule and rhythms, to move within the transit layout made for you during the morning and evening rush, winding through the crowds of fellow commuters. To live in a city is to consume its offerings. To eat at its restaurants. To drink at its bars. To shop at its stores. To pay its sales taxes. To give a dollar to its homeless. To live in a city is to take part in and to propagate its impossible systems. To wake up. To go to work in the morning. It is also to take pleasure in those systems because, otherwise, who could repeat the same routines, year in, year out?”

 

A little secret. One of my guilty pleasures is media relating to an apocalypse. In that same weird way some people love watching horror movies, I quite enjoy reading or watching things about what might happen in the event of an apocalypse. Which might be why when I heard about Ling Ma’s debut novel, Severance, I immediately bumped it up my #TBR list.

The great thing about this book is that it is about SO much more than an apocalypse. In fact, the apocalypse becomes nothing more than a theatrical backdrop to the real story and commentary of the main narrator, Candace. And what a narrator!

There are so many nods in here that I really enjoyed. George Romero is the classic king of the zombie-trope movie, with his Dawn of the Dead centred around a shopping mall. The blunt satire of the living characters is not lost:

 

‘What are they doing? Why do they come here?’

‘Instinct, memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.’

 

A shopping centre also features prominently in Ma’s novel, with nods to the use of capitalism within previous apocalyptic movies and TV series, but she takes it to a whole new level, one not previously explored as far as I know. Candace Chen, the main narrator, is a quiet, somewhat lost twenty-something, living in New York when the epidemic known as Shen Fever hits. Thought to have originated in China, the global manufacturing processes built on cheaper labour and production costs, have meant the disease has been able to spread rapidly across the world. The fever sends the inflicted into a mindless, zombie-like state, where they repeat actions familiar to them over and over again. They forget self-care and lose the sense of self-preservation, instead succumbing to their repetitive tasks until they die.

The infected numbers escalate in over-populated places – like new York – so once it seems there is no cure, many people begin a mass exodus. Except for Candace, who insists on carrying about her life with as much normality as she can inspire, documenting the ever derelict city via her blog NY Ghost.

Through Candace, Ma has managed to offer an entirely new spin on the apocalypse genre. Ordinarily, these scenarios are presented to us through a protagonist who is easy to identify: a typically middle aged but fit, white male, a family man, with a job that would have equipped him well for what was coming, in the police force or combat services. Candace we learn is an immigrant and an orphan, both her parents having died in her late teenage years. Her parents moved to America from Fuzhou, China when she was little and once established, moved her to live with them at the age of 6. She works for a publishing house, covering the production of Bibles, and the insights of her world here add to the new layer of the capitalist society we are introduced to, as well as immigrant narratives in the Western world.

This combination of complicated cultural identity, mixed with the loss of the two anchors who might have been able to give her a sense of home in a place where she is constantly identified as an outsider, keeps Candace removed from those around her. Her Western boyfriend, aspiring writer, quits New York at the start of the epidemic, but more out of personal morals against the ever-spiralling consumerist society he finds himself a part of. Having watched how her mother took delight in participating in the shopping culture of her new city, Candace is hesitant to agree directly with her boyfriend. Instead, she offers the idea of consumerism as a way to connect and feel part of a place, by becoming a part of its economic system and establishing a connection that is easy and gratifying, if only briefly.

Candace is one of the last to leave New York and is found by a group of other survivors. As in most apocalypse stories, this is really when her troubles begin. Other survivors are always the ones to look out for in a now seemingly lawless society, and Ma offers her own version of the dis-likeable self-imposed leader in Bob. Ah, Bob. You’ll have to read the book to find out how that story-line ends.

There are so many themes gracefully touched upon throughout this book: mother-daughter relationships, late-stage capitalism, consumerist society, immigrant experiences and exploitation, global economic narratives, finding a sense of self, home, and purpose, heritage, culture, connection, and love. It’s all here if you look for it.

The prose is sparse, restrained. It isn’t sensationalist and it allows the reader to take on the story but with so many hidden wells of deeper thought plotted throughout. The story of the afflicted is told with care, without gruesome details, and provides the perfect bleakness for the real story at the heart of this book.

I finished this immediately wanting more. I felt a bit incredulous at the point in time in which Ma chose to end this story, but on reflection, it really was the perfect point. I only found out after finishing that this is also her debut novel, which blew my mind.

I can’t wait to read more from her.

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