Severance by Ling Ma | Book Review

January 31st – February 1st

I have so many mixed feelings about this book. At its core, I enjoyed the plot, the characters, the writing style, and the message behind it. I fully recognize that in this case, I just didn’t mesh well with this book, and that this review is based almost entirely on how I felt during my reading experience. I found it difficult to read, and it gave me a lot of anxiety. I ended up finishing it because not knowing how everything ended was much worse than going through. I’m glad that I pushed through to the ending, because I found that the best, and most redeeming aspect of the story.

This book follows Candace Chen, a Chinese woman whose family immigrated to the US when she was six years old. It goes through her relationships with her boyfriend, her parents, her coworkers and her friends, as well as her job. It also follows her as civilization collapses around her due to an epidemic which leaves people infected and zombie-like.

The best way I can describe this book is sleepy. It drifts from one memory of Candace’s to the next, without quotations for dialogue or break-ups in the story or flow. There isn’t a lot of action or compelling movement in the book, it seems almost tired and routine. It makes perfect sense, given the subject matter and the “point” of the book, but it was definitely a writing style that took me a long time to get into.

For some reason this book really just struck a chord with me in a way that created dissonance in my brain. It made me feel anxious, and though I loved the story that was told (especially the ending, more on that in a minute) I didn’t enjoy the reading experience because of it. I don’t know if I would recommend this book, which is somewhat disappointing, because there were aspects of it I loved.

Now, let’s tackle the ending.

I read so many reviews after I finished this, trying to see if there were other people who found the book anxiety producing. The results were mixed, but none of the people who rated it similarly to me were doing so for the same reason, and most of them talked about the ending being a let-down. In my opinion, the ending was the best part of the book. I’m getting into spoiler territory here, so here’s your warning.

I thought the ending of the book was absolutely perfect. The entire time we’re following Candace, she has a feeling that the fevered are stuck in their memories, plagued by nostalgia and routine, and both drawn to it and triggered when they get close to it. We see this when Bob is walking around the Facility. We see this when one of the other survivors tries on her dresses over and over. They end up falling into these routines because they’re finally back home, and many times they’re fighting to get back to their homes, and they don’t quite know why.

The entire book we’re stuck inside of Candace’s memories, as she relives her childhood, her parents coming to the US, her parents’ death, and the last days of her job. Candace’s love for cities and walking around them is brought up multiple times, and my interpretation of the book is very much that she was fevered and resumed her walking routine at the end. I could be totally off-base in this, but this interpretation makes the most sense to me. This was my favorite part of the book.

This is Ling Ma’s first book, and based on how much I loved the ending alone I’ll definitely check out her work in the future to see how it compares.


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