Book Review: Ling Ma's Severance

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Ling Ma’s Severance for a pop culture class. A narrative revolving around a global pandemic, Severance weaves a story world in which some fungal virus drives those infected to become “fevered,” existing in zombified states marked by obsessive repetition and mindlessness. Reading this book in the era of COVID-19 felt uncanny; released only two years ago, Ma seems to anticipate the nuances of a pandemic-driven life. Her protagonist, Candace Chen, navigates loneliness, grief, and chaos while finding meaning in small bits of normalcy, gaining agency as she reclaims her right of choice. In many ways, reading Severance was comforting. It inspired me to keep hardship in perspective, to seek beauty in the small things while taking accountability for my own life. Most interestingly, Severance invited me to reflect on memory and the ways in which the past operates in the present moment.

Towards the end of the novel, Candance drives through Chicago’s lifeless streets while ruminating on a past lover, one from the pre-pandemic period. She expresses, “I must have been deep in his reminiscing, his intricate, lacelike memories inlaid in me.” This sentiment resonated deeply; reading these words, I found myself considering how emotional intimacy flourishes through memory, through one's subconscious ability to absorb and understand the experiences of loved ones on such a profound level that realities intertwine. It's rather lovely, in a bittersweet kind of way, a testament to nonlinear time and space. Through engaging with these nostalgic reflections, Ling Ma intricately explores loss and hope in a disordered world, offering readers insight into the transcendence of memory and the power of perception. In a reality riddled with uncertainty, where timelines can change in a matter of seconds, Severance has a lot to teach us about both perseverance and introspection.