“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” “The Hollow Men” -T.S. Eliot
Severance by Ling Ma is an unusual but elegant combination of immigration story and post-apocalyptic drama. Thematically, it addresses the human desire for belonging that is derailed by mistrust and urban alienation. It also makes a statement about our modern tendency to adhere compulsively to conformity despite conflicting ideals of individuality and personal freedom. Ling Ma’s protagonist, Candace Chen, is a new transplant to New York City after having lost both of her parents. The rest of her family lives in China, so she has no real connections upon her arrival. At first, she aimlessly wanders the city taking photographs that even she admits are unoriginal. Eventually, she falls into a job working in an international book printing office. Candace finds herself caught in an endless loop of routine-with mostly superficial friendships and little hope for change or advancement. She even clings to her daily rituals as the world succumbs slowly to an epidemic that culminates in the breakdown of civilization. The sickness, called Shen Fever, causes the infected (“the Fevered”) to act like robotic zombies, engaging in rote motions until they inevitably die from neglect of their basic needs. The plague spreads insidiously, creeping over the globe with no discernable reason as to why some people fall ill while others remain immune. Candace reluctantly leaves the city only when pressured by the lack of services and a secret she can no longer contain. She is welcomed into a group of survivors in search of a place to settle and begin a new life. Their dogmatic leader enforces order with evangelical zeal and may have ulterior motives. The novel alternates between Candace’s experience as a child new to America, her life in NY, and her experience dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Severance is a quick but addictive read- unique and thought-provoking. What does it take to wake us up out of our comfort zones and propel us into taking action when these zones are no longer inhabitable? Is the security of being accepted and cared for worth the cost of independence? Ling Ma’s debut novel is funny but disturbing, refreshing but uncomfortably familiar. Definitely a new author worth recommending and watching for her future efforts.