Quarantine Review Series: Severance by Ling Ma

Named ‘Best Book of the Year’ by NPR. This book just goes to show how mediocre the critics at NPR really are.

I try not to be too harsh when reviewing books because I know that authors are people too, but this book just wasn’t it, and I don’t know how it garnered the respect from so many different outlets.

Severance is about a Chinese immigrant who has traveled to the States with her parents for a new life. She is an adult in most of this book, and it mainly jumps back and forth between right before and after Shen fever takes over. But also gives you the perspective of her parents when they first arrive in the U.S.. When Shen Fever hits, people become ‘fevered’ and they essentially become zombies without any of the brain eating. Severance is mostly about Candace getting her job as a bible distributor before the fever and her fleeting relationships with those around her.

My first issue with Severance is that every single character is unlikable. Candace is just the worst. She constantly settles and does the wrong thing. She is trusting when she shouldn’t be and weary of those she should trust. Watching her navigate adulthood and friendship is aggravating.

Candace’s parents are also pretty horrible. Her mom is cruel and pushy. The parents can’t agree on anything and I constantly wondered why they bothered to be together. I had zero interest in how they came to be in the United States. They feel like an after thought thrown in to make Candace’s life more interesting than it was. They don’t have anything redeemable about them and seemed to serve as just an obstacle with no depth.

The only interesting part of this novel is the shorts moments of the ‘present’, where everyone is fevered and Candace has to navigate being a part of a survivors group. Still, the time spent in the present is so short it wasn’t worth wading through the never ending flashbacks. On top of that, Candace makes horrible decisions within the survivors group that solidified my dislike for her character.

Severance creeps along at a pace comparable to paint drying. This novel is so wordy that I was constantly having to reread sections because I’d lose interest halfway through. I am usually a huge fan of all encompassing description, but with this novel being as boring as it was, I was uninterested. The descriptions felt endless, in a bad way.

I will say that the weaving of past and present is seamless in Severance. Past and present meet right at the key moments and for me that was impressive. I wasn’t at all confused when the timelines changed or converged, and that is not an easy task to accomplish. Ling Ma definitely did that right.

Ling Ma also did something interesting by creating non-violent zombies. It was an interesting script flip that I wasn’t expecting. It was a bit boring, but I like that Ling Ma tried something unique. It was a good attempt, but with all the other issues fell flat.

Lastly, I’d like to point out that Ling Ma makes New York City so beautiful. I’ll be honest, I have no desire to go to NYC, and I definitely wouldn’t live there. But, this novel does a fantastic job of emphasizing the beauty of New York. It made me see it in a light that I’ve never seen it in before. Suddenly the hustle and bustle was beautiful and the neon lights were like the night sky. For the first time I felt the need to be there, and experience The City That Never Sleeps.

With all things considered Severance earns a measly 2/5 stars from me. This beloved novel did not hit home for me. If you choose to read this novel, do so with caution, and with a pillow nearby to take a nap.