Nostalgia is a Plague: A Review of Severance by Ling Ma

Hello, traveler! We’re back to writing book reviews! For my first post of the sunny (or shadowy, depending on where you look) month of August, let’s talk about Severance, the shocking and stunning adult sci-fi debut from Ling Ma that absolutely knocked my socks off. (This review is spoiler-free!)

SYNOPSIS:

Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. So she barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?


Add on Goodreads | Add on Storygraph


Rep:

  • Chinese-American author and main character
  • Chinese (specifically Fujianese) characters
  • BIPOC side characters

Content Warnings:

  • Death
  • Depression
  • Murder
  • Pandemic content
  • Imprisonment
  • On-page sexual content
  • Suicidal ideation

tl;dr: Do I recommend this book?


MY RATING: ★★★★★


Oh, my God. 

This Book Was Really Good

In another world, with another story, Severance by Ling Ma would have been a solid 4-star book. Akin to its predecessors, the plague fiction of days gone by — à la Albert Camus’s The Plague or Ice-Pick Lodge’s Pathologic video game series — Severance is a tightly written story with a grizzled and wry, though begrudgingly (and unknowingly) idealistic, protagonist you can root for.

And in that alternate world, I would have oohed and ahed at the novel’s succinct, persuasive prose, shook my e-reader as the exciting third act unfolded, and called it a day. I would have been fondly reminded of my favorite seasons of The Walking Dead. (The ones with Steven Yeun in them. I don’t remember which exactly. Also, trust me on the video I hyperlinked. 😋) Then, I would have returned the e-book on my pilfered high-school Sora account and gone on to read my latest high fantasy acquisition or a familiar favorite. If I read a few months ago, before I graduated, I would have, like, gone to prom or after-school clubs or something. 🙈

But that was not the case. 

Little Details (and a Bigger Global Crisis)

For better or for worse, we have become the grizzled and wry, though begrudgingly (and unknowingly) idealistic, protagonists in the non-linear narratives of our lives. Albeit weakly, exhausted by all that has transpired and all that will transpire, we root for ourselves.

Severance is a right-story, right-time ideal. What better time to read a book about a disastrous disease than in a period entrenched by disastrous disease? (I’m kidding. Charot, charot. Mostly.)

I saw myself in each chapter — in each comparison — in each arc. Without going into to it far too parasocially for my taste, my family was hit hard by the pandemic. As I read Severance late at night over my mattress, or deep into the afternoon on a chair, I’d have to pause and take a breather from all the real-life corollaries that struck me, and may be recognizable for you.

For instance:

  • Update blogs that posted frequently.
  • Photos of empty streets.
  • Tourists taking advantage of cheap travel fares.
  • Awkward solidarity.
  • Shuffling through halted routines.
  • Using Amazon’s delivery service for groceries.
  • Driving while the sun is out and realizing that there are few other cars.
  • N95 masks.
  • Travel bans.
  • Being alone. 

It’s not just that. There were little details about protagonist Candace Chen’s character and past, too, that resonated with me as an Asian reader. Severance explores the immigrant and Asian-American experiences with a deft hand.

The little things struck me:

  • Not actually knowing your relatives’ names, since you’ve only ever called them by the titles for “Uncle” or “Second Uncle” or “Aunt.”
  • Texting your cousin with Google Translate because it’s hard to remember how to write in your so-called mother tongue.
  • Sending Clinique products to your family across the ocean. (My mother always does this.)
  • The invisible pressure of the “model minority” myth.
  • The irritating assumption that you don’t know English, and that you don’t know what Easter is.
  • Relatives singing Asian karaoke with explicit lyrics.

(Let me just circle back briefly to the Clinique products. Clinique products are mentioned twelve times in Severance. At each reference, I was shell-shocked. No other book had ever articulated Asian mothers’ fixation with Clinique, which, before I read Ling Ma’s novel, I had believed was exclusive to my own mother. Literature reveals, as they say!)

At its core, Severance is a scathing satire of capitalism and hustle culture. I’ve never been good with satire; I’ve always found it difficult to parse the humorous, dry elements of the genre with its sincere commentary. But Severance balances earnestness with facetiousness in such a deliberate way that its commentary was clear: haunted by what we used to be, our nostalgia both propels us forward and holds us back.

Also, capitalism smothers you.

Perhaps it’s a human thing to always want to be useful. To want to be, as that one TikTok sound so accurately and eloquently puts it, appreciated. But what is it worth? The world hasn’t ended yet. 

These topics, and more, brush the surface of what Severance explores throughout its 304-page runtime.

Art That Affects You

You know when readers say, “Separate the art from the artist”? Selfishly, I could not separate the art of Severance from myself, the audience member. So much of the plot and world reflected scenes from my own life (and yours, too, I’m willing to bet) that I’m convinced that Ling Ma has a Tardis, or at least some Cassandra-esque powers of foresight. It’s absolutely wild how Ma managed to predict and dissect the future all at once.

And this novel was published in May 2019. 

I didn’t expect to be so profoundly affected by this book. Y’all told me that it was going to be a surreal experience, but I didn’t know that I would be completely submerged. 

So I’m gonna sink into my melodrama for a while. 

How about that high fantasy book, huh?


Thank you so much for reading my review of Severance by Ling Ma! 💛 I’m trying out new formats on my blog, and I’m so glad I got to read this banger of a book.


Don’t miss a post! Coming up next on Sophie and Their Stories: that high fantasy book! 😏

Let’s connect across the Net! 💖

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