Book Reviews

Review: Severance by Ling Ma

Welcome to another of my book club reviews! This month we chose Severance, which is a book that’s been on my radar for a while. At the time of writing this review, we haven’t spoken about it yet, so my thoughts will be a little unformed! Or more unformed than normal! Keep reading this book review to see what I thought about this backlist hyped dystopia!


Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.

So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.

Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?


Reading a dystopia about a pandemic is going to be forever different after 2020. Initially we had wanted to read this in March….and then COVID landed in our lives. We put the book off until now, but wanted to make sure we read it before the end of 2020. Overall, Severance examines not only how people’s humanity reacts to the breaking down of society, but Candace’s life which brought her to New York. The circumstances which lead to her presence in New York, to that job, to that apartment. It’s an introspective story that examines loneliness and change.

What has Candace been searching for her entire life? Before the Shen Fever spreads, what drives Candace, and how has her life changed? How are wew defined by the connections around us? What do we do with ourselves when they disappear and fracture? Group dynamics, particularly in survival groups at the end of the world, is a huge theme in Severance. Because in this dystopia, what is the meaning of change. As it destabilizes our surroundings and lives, what will transform?

There were some elements, some moments in Severance, that stopped me in my tracks. Like a scene with Candace’s mom has her moles removed, but her face is still marked by the absence, the little marks of lighter skin. In my mind, Severance remains thought provoking, and still a tad confusing. Does technology keep us grounded in the past? How do we, as a community and individual, move forward? As our lives become limited to what we can carry, what do we keep and what do the pieces we leave behind come to mean?

Severance is one of those books which I wish had a reading guide at the back. There is so much to unpack: the ways her parent’s lives unfolded, finding purpose in this dystopia, and also knowing when a story feels finished. I’m glad I still have time to be able to chat about it with my book club, but for now, Severance feels like an open ended question. And we don’t always get the answers we crave.

Find Severance on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, & The Book Depository.


What’s a book you read for a club or assignment that you still need answers to?

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