Ling Ma

Book cover

This was…not the best book to read while traveling in Asia during the first news of the coronavirus outbreak?

I won’t hold that against Ling Ma though. I really enjoyed the book as an entry in the modern “really it’s not sci-fi” literary genre (“Suicide Club”, Rachel Heng, 2018; “Station Eleven”, Emily St. John Mandel, 2014; “Good Morning, Midnight”, Lily Brooks-Dalton, 2016…). I didn’t get swept away by it quite as much as “Station Eleven,” but that is a high bar.

What I especially did appreciate about “Severance,” though, is that the pandemic that brings us to the post-apocalyptic world isn’t just a faceless plot device to get us there–compare “Station Eleven,” where the disease is never described in much detail, or “Good Morning, Midnight,” where we never even really know what happened–disease, war, or otherwise. That can be fine, if the point of the book is to focus elsewhere. But in “Severance,” the nature of Shen fever is closely tied to the book’s motifs, most especially ritual, routine, and repetition, as well as of course capitalist relations between China and the US. The physical and mental effects of the disease are just at the edge of believable, but I was able to suspend my disbelief sufficiently.

As others have commented, some of the events at the very end of the book seemed a little contrived. This didn’t bother me too much because I wasn’t mainly in it for the plot. Ma has a good eye for detail and an inventive literary mind. I look forward to her next novel!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars