by Ling Ma
Shen Fever, a fungal infection, spreads across the globe. Initial symptoms mirror the common cold, but as the infection worsens, infected lose themselves in familiar loops of activity. One of the “fevered” for example, appears to be reading, but her book is upside down, and she is regularly drinking moldy juice. Unable to break free of the loops, the fevered stop eating, drinking, bathing, or doing anything but acting out these rote activities. There is no cure, and the condition is fatal.
Candace Chen, who immigrated to the United States from China when she was six, works at Spectra, a company that helps publishers produce books like Bibles and coffee table books in Asia. Her specialization is Bibles, and she has nightmares about the thin papers used in Bibles getting stuck in the printing press. When Shen Fever hits New York City, her boss wants to keep the office open and selects Candace as part of the small team that will stay–in exchange for an exorbitant bonus.
But when New York City empties, she joins a group of survivors led by the controlling figure, Bob, who had worked in information technology before the fever hit. Bob leads the group to a mysterious Facility where they will be able to survive, though Candace fears that she may be in danger.
I became engrossed in Severance and really enjoyed reading it. However, there is so much going on in Severance, it is hard to condense, and, truly, I am still trying to work out all the implications of the narrative. In addition to the post-apocalyptic narrative, the book is an immigrant story about Candace’s parent’s painful adjustment to life in the United States. It is also a critique of capitalism and the inequities of global trade. Ma makes connections between the routines of employees and the loops of the fevered, and while there is comfort in the familiarity, there is also the risk of being subsumed. The narrative is peppered with phrases that cleverly recur and reinforce the theme of repetition.
In many ways, Severance is my favorite kind of novel: well-written and provocative. It has all the fun (to me at least) of apocalyptic fiction but is elevated by the well-drawn characters, interesting back stories, and thought-provoking themes.
Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for an honest review.