Majority of the dystopian novels I have read have often been in high school English classes that were written in the twentieth century and the other half always consisted of a society with an alternative societal structure such as the Hunger Games or Divergent. However, "Severance" by Ling Ma is the first dystopian novel that I have read for class that has been reflective of the modern world. Written in 2018, the novel is set in an alternate 2011, yet there was an uncanny resemblance to the happenings of the year 2020.
The novel follows the protagonist, Candace, who produces bibles for cheap overseas in China from a company based in New York. She feels unfulfilled with her job, but continues to work there as she is good at what she does. Amidst this redundant life, the Shen fever, originating in China, spreads across the globe. Gradually, the aspects of her life that Candace continues to live for slowly dissipate. Candace's journey highlights the novel's themes of consumerism, identity, and nostalgia
One of the most important features of the novel is the protagonist's identity. Candace's identity is central to the novel without feeling overbearing and unnatural. As a Chinese-American immigrant, her experience's growing up in China and America play a large role in her "outsider" personality. She feels comfort and some familiarity when she travels to China for work but also craves parts of her American culture. She slowly loses connection to her family back in China, yet she also loses her only family in America. Ma weaves flashbacks of Candace's childhood and adulthood seamlessly. There is no confusion and the intricate details flow together to knit together a story that has many layers involving family, love, and identity.
Another aspect the novel touches upon the consumerism and materialism of the 2010s and the idea of "emerging adulthood," the space many young adults, 18-25, sometimes until 29, find themselves navigating. The usual milestones of graduating college, getting a job, getting married, and having children. Nowadays, these milestones are postponed to the thirties. A global pandemic elucidates the important aspects of life and the shallowness of worrying about economic issues amidst a widespread disease. Candace still tries to lose herself in her work that no longer matters, even when she is the only one continuing to work.
Additionally, the theme of nostalgia is ever present throughout the novel. Ma intersperses flashbacks and utilizes long sentences with excellent diction to create a nostalgic mood for the reader. The writing style makes one miss everyday occurences like going for long walks and sipping coffee. Candace's own photography blog, the NY Ghost, where she takes photos of the abandoned city stems from missing the bustling city and the old daily life everyone once had. Even the never-ending routines of the fevered are viewed with a romanticized lens. Candace attributes their repetitive motions with the emotions of what they must have felt like when they were not sick.
Overall, this novel is worth the read, especially in the times we are currently facing.