Books and movies depicting the apocalypse have a tendency to go big. I understand that the end of civilization would be a pretty big deal, but does it always have to be so dramatic? Be it zombies, plague, natural disaster or aliens, ‘the end’ comes storming onto the scene and everyone runs screaming. Because of this, I’ve always appreciated works that depict the world’s upcoming doom as just one event among many in a character’s everyday life. It just seems more realistic to me. Admittedly, wanting realism when it comes to the apocalypse might seem a bit odd. But hey, I am what I am.
In Severance by Ling Ma, the apocalypse is a quiet one. It takes the form of Shen Fever, which is a highly contagious disease, turning people into zombies but not the bloodthirsty brain eating kind. Instead, Shen Fever is a ‘disease of remembering’ that renders its victims harmless, but doomed to repeat the routines they performed in life, until they slowly waste away. But even this catastrophic event is not the center of the book. Instead, it is the life of the protagonist Candace that is of most importance.
Alternating between Candace’s life before and after the pandemic, you come to know her as a quirky twenty-something coming to terms with a world that is drastically altered, yet strangely the same. Before the pandemic, she works for a Manhattan book publisher in the ‘specialty Bibles division’ and lives with her on again off again boyfriend Jonathan in Brooklyn. Both have vague artistic ambitions, but Candace has resigned herself to a more mundane job to pay the bills. Once Shen Fever hits the city, and the number of people in her office slowly starts to decline, she actually has a chance to indulge her creative side. She founds the blog NY Ghost and captures haunting images of an empty New York City for those who have fled.
Once things really start to fall apart, with food and the internet in short supply, she is forced to leave and try to find a new way of living. She eventually comes across a group of survivors led by Bob, a former IT specialist with some rather odd ideas about the new world and his role in it. The group continues in search of a safe place, that only Bob knows about. On the way, they scavenge homes for supplies, filled with victims of the fever who are continually performing the same routine tasks they did when healthy.
Severance is an odd but rewarding read. By focusing on character rather than catastrophe, it produces a convincing portrait of a young woman trying to make sense of a possibly dying world and her place in it.