BOOK REVIEWS

Severance by Ling Ma

“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?”

Severance is an engrossing and, given the current pandemic, timely read. Through the use of a dual timeline Ling Ma’s novel encompasses many genres: we have chapters set in the past, pre-apocalypse, when the Shen Fever is a mere afterthought in the daily lives of New Yorkers, and the ones post-apocalypse, in which our protagonist joins a cultish group of survivors who seem to be immune to the fever.

Kmart realism meets millennial malaise in Candace Chen’s first-person narration.
Candace’s sardonic observations lightened the mood of the story. Her drone-like work attitude brought to mind novels such Convenience Store Woman and Temporary. The chapters set in the past detail Candace’s daily routine, in which we see that other than her half-hearted interest in photography, Candace is resigned to her position as Senior Product Coordinator of Spectra’s Bibles division, and isn’t too disturbed by her role in the exploitation of workers outside of America. She’s yet another disaffected, somewhat directionless, twenty-something female protagonist who has become all the rage in contemporary fiction. Thankfully Ma makes Candace her own unique creation, one who, as the fever starts spreading in America, actually undergoes some character growth (making Severance a coming-of-age of sorts). Although Candace operates very much on auto-pilot, her listless routine is soon interrupted by the pandemic.

In the chapters focusing on ‘after’, once New Yorkers have either fled the city or become infected, Candace joins a group led by the rather bullying Bob, a man who isn’t particularly charming or clever but has somehow successfully convinced others that they will be safe if they follow him to the Facility (a ‘mysterious’ but safe location). Along the way, they raid the houses of those who are infected, and Candace finds herself becoming increasingly disenchanted towards her so-called leader.

In Ma’s novel the fevered repeat “banal activities” on an infinite loop: they will spend the rest of their days performing the same activity (such as washing dishes, opening a door, dressing , trying different clothes). Ma’s fever works as an allegory, one which reduces humans to the humdrum activities—getting dressed, preparing food—that constitute their lives.
Tense or even brutal scenes are alleviated by Candace’s caustic narration. And there are even moments and dialogues that are so absurd as to verge on the hysterical realism. Ma makes it work, and unlike her characters, or the circumstances they face, her language remains restrained.
Underneath the novel’s hyperbolic scenarios lies a shrewd critique of capitalism, consumerism, globalism, modern work culture, and the American Dream. Through flashbacks we learn of Candace’s parents’ arrival in America and of how their diverging desires—Candace’s mother wishes to return to China while the father believes that will lead more successful lives in America—created a rift in their marriage.

Ma covers a myriad of topics in a seemingly offhand manner: adulthood, loneliness, connectedness, dislocation. Candace’s deadpan narration takes her readers alongside a journey that is as surreal as it is chilling. Ma, far more successfully than Mona Awad with Bunny, switches with ease between the first and third person, showing her readers just how easily one can lose sight of their identity.
My only criticism is towards Ma’s use of the dual timeline. At times there wasn’t a clear balance between past and present, and some sections detailing Candace’s work at Spectra were overlong. Still, I really enjoyed Severance, it is an impressive debut and I can’t wait to read more from Ma.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

THE LAST: BOOK REVIEW

Untitled-1.jpg
The Last
 by Hanna Jameson
★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

“You know what we think of as right and wrong don’t exist anymore. Everything that happened before, it has no meaning now.”

The Last is a very compelling read. The story has plenty of atmosphere, well-rounded characters, and poses a lot of interesting questions.
I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as yet another post-apocalyptic novel…to do so seems reductive. The Last depicts the way in which a group of people once isolated —cut off from the rest of society—could act. There is tension underlining a lot of the characters’ interactions especially after they discover the body of a young girl in one of the hotel’s water tanks.
It is Jon, our narrator and an American historian, who decides to find out who killed this mysterious girl. Was she murdered before the nuclear attacks? Is her murderer still in the hotel? While the others believe that the girl’s death has little importance compared to what could possibly be the end of the civilisation as they know it…but Jon is determined to find out what exactly happened to this girl.
His investigation is impeded by their situation…the approaching winter season, their dwindling resources, and a growing sense of unrest interfere with Jon’s search for the murderer’s identity.

I thought that that the author did a brilliant job. Jon’s account —which takes the form of a diary of sorts— pulled me right in. As time passes, and as he and the others attempt to come to terms with their new ‘nightmarish’ reality, Jon revisits that ‘first day’, when he first heard/saw the news about the nuclear attacks. Grief, guilt, and shock, make an impact on both Jon and his account.
Being a historian, he wants to ‘commit to paper’ the history, and experiences of the other survivors. Also, as he begins to suspect that the girl’s murderer is still at the hotel, ‘interviewing’ the others gives him the chance to carry out his investigation.

Jon and the other survivors felt very fleshed out. I loved the way in which Jameson can make you care or respect characters who are rather unlikable. Jon’s account is not always reliable yet I ended up really liking him. He has retained a strong sense of justice (view spoiler) and while he might not always say the right thing, he could be incredibly understanding and kind. I also appreciated the way in which his ‘bravery’ is different from the usual ‘act/shoot’ now sort of bravery. Just because he is a thinker, and not a fighter, doesn’t make unable to act in order to help the others. Of course, given the situation he is in, it isn’t at all surprising that he begins to suspect some of his fellow survivors.
The survivors at the hotel come from different backgrounds. They are shown to have different personalities and priorities, and often clash in their views on politics etc. Funnily enough, I ended up really appreciating Tomi, the only American other than Jon.At the start I found her grating and once we discover that she voted for Trump…well, I really hated her. Yet, as things get more tense, she shows that she has plenty of courage and can be incredibly loyal. By the end, I understood and respected her, flaws and all.
I also really liked Nathan, the former bartender of the hotel, Yuka Yobari, who is at the hotel alongside her family, and Rob, who is possibly the sweetest character of them all.

As the novel progresses I found the creepy setting and the mounting tension among the survivors to be nerve-racking.
Jameson’s novel poses a lot of interesting questions; do laws and justice still matter in the even of a a societal collapse? What would you be prepared to do when it comes to us vs. them/me vs. you in order to survive?

“…we’re friends,” I said.
Jessie laughed. “Are you serious? It’s the end of the world, Jon. Grow up.”

The ending did feel rushed —especially when compared to the rest of Jon’s narrative— but I wasn’t disappointed by the story’s conclusion.
The Last is a compelling page-turning novel with a story that gives readers plenty of food for thought.

View all my reviews