How close to reality did the 2018 book Severance by Ling Ma predict the world’s pandemic response? If you’re up for a non-Covid, but still eerily post-2019 story, this book might be for you. If you’d like to avoid the subject in your entertainment, then you might want to skip it.
The debut novel Severance by Ling Ma is the story of a mysterious illness that hits the world slowly at first and then snowballs quickly into something that overruns the world. Reading it, I found it hard to believe that the book was not written after Covid-19 hit our world. Some of the similarities to our real world situation were surprising in their accuracy. A mysterious virus arising out of a region in China to slowly spread across the world? Check. Companies handing out masks so that their employees could keep on working together in close quarters? Check. The infrastructure of the world slowly decaying as more and more people fall ill? Check, Check, Check!
A big difference between our virus and the Shen Virus of the book is that when people contract the Shen virus is pretty obvious pretty quick. And yes, we’re talking zombies. But unlike in most zombie stories, these zombies do not attack other people. They simply get stuck inside their heads and their routines, eventually starving to death or dying of exposure or illness as they walk to work barefoot or eat food that has long since gone bad. Nobody really understands how the virus is transmitted with mask-wearing becoming more of a symbol to others that you are as yet uninfected than it is an actual protection.
The story itself is told in 3 time periods and moves back and forth throughout those periods. We see the childhood of protagonist Candace Chen and the story of how she and her parents immigrated to America from the Fuzhou province of China. A second time period shows Candace’s life and career in New York after the deaths of her parents and leading up to the outbreak of the pandemic. The third time period takes place after the world has become a wasteland and Candace has joined a group of fellow seemingly immune survivors as they trek out into the world to try and find a sustainable life.
I am not generally a fan of this type of storytelling. I prefer a more linear style. However I do think that it works in this book, showing how the world has changed so much over a rather short period. The looks into Candace’s childhood help to explain the choices she makes as an adult. Her willingness to be alone, and the way she doesn’t even really seem to notice the extent to which society is crumbling around her becomes somehow understandable as we get to know her past self more.
I found the book to be kind of depressing as it hit too close to home. What I think was initially written as an allegory for finding oneself and not getting trapped into a mundane existence became just a little too on the nose to be a comfortable read. That said, it wasn’t an overwhelming depression either. There were lighter moments and moments of beauty as well. As much as it is a story about society and work and life choices, it is also a story about mothers and daughters and they way they relate to each other. I wish we had been allowed to explore that second aspect a little more throughout the book. It is not a book that I would recommend to everyone, but it is a very readable story. If you are comfortable with the subject matter, then I would not warn you off of it.