Severance is one of those stories that is hard to nail down. It's largely post-apocalyptic, yet it has a very contemporary feel to it. It's dark and yet it's darkly comic. It's painted as a straight-forward dystopian tale, yet it may be an allegory for the way we live. It's meandering while focused. It's terrifying, it's sleep inducing. It's great and it's really not all that good.
For all the positive things I can say about this novel, I think the reason I'm also ambivalent toward it is due to the unevenness of the book. Perhaps there is some filler where there should have been more character development. I didn't really feel invested in these characters, and some of them were little more than tropes. When dealing with characters who are facing life and death, it's important for a reader to believe in what's at stake. For the most part, I didn't. The purpose of these characters was largely to move the plot forward.
Where the novel succeeds, however, is in its world building and its larger story. The parallels that are drawn between the capitalist world of Candance's past with that of her plague-infested present are brilliant. The pandemic that sweeps the world in Severance causes its victims to repeat menial tasks without thought. This continues until they finally expire. Thus an avid reader may turn the pages of her favorite book without reading a word for days. A taxi driver may drive his same route, even picking up passengers, but all without a thought or care, day and night, until his body just gives out. And that's where this story wonderfully elicits questions of how allegorical this whole story is.
My opinion of this slim novel swayed throughout. I really liked parts of it—thought it was brilliant at times. Other parts were just a bit too unsophisticated. In the end, I guess I feel so-so about it. It certainly didn't help that the final third of this novel came across as rushed and formulaic. This was the part of the story where I felt any decent author of dystopian fiction could've stepped in and done an equally commendable job. It's an ending that should satisfy readers of the genre looking for a piece of action that is familiar, but as a reader looking for something original or thought-provoking, I felt it was a let down.
Severance is an easy read and one that I would recommend to readers of dystopian fiction. Other readers could probably adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward this one and be fine.
“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” “The Hollow Men” -T.S. Eliot
Severance by Ling Ma is an unusual but elegant combination of immigration story and post-apocalyptic drama. Thematically, it addresses the human desire for belonging that is derailed by mistrust and urban alienation. It also makes a statement about our modern tendency to adhere compulsively to conformity despite conflicting ideals of individuality and personal freedom. Ling Ma’s protagonist, Candace Chen, is a new transplant to New York City after having lost both of her parents. The rest of her family lives in China, so she has no real connections upon her arrival. At first, she aimlessly wanders the city taking photographs that even she admits are unoriginal. Eventually, she falls into a job working in an international book printing office. Candace finds herself caught in an endless loop of routine-with mostly superficial friendships and little hope for change or advancement. She even clings to her daily rituals as the world succumbs slowly to an epidemic that culminates in the breakdown of civilization. The sickness, called Shen Fever, causes the infected (“the Fevered”) to act like robotic zombies, engaging in rote motions until they inevitably die from neglect of their basic needs. The plague spreads insidiously, creeping over the globe with no discernable reason as to why some people fall ill while others remain immune. Candace reluctantly leaves the city only when pressured by the lack of services and a secret she can no longer contain. She is welcomed into a group of survivors in search of a place to settle and begin a new life. Their dogmatic leader enforces order with evangelical zeal and may have ulterior motives. The novel alternates between Candace’s experience as a child new to America, her life in NY, and her experience dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Severance is a quick but addictive read- unique and thought-provoking. What does it take to wake us up out of our comfort zones and propel us into taking action when these zones are no longer inhabitable? Is the security of being accepted and cared for worth the cost of independence? Ling Ma’s debut novel is funny but disturbing, refreshing but uncomfortably familiar. Definitely a new author worth recommending and watching for her future efforts.
After a terrifically hard and terribly disappointing day before the Fourth of July, Peanut Johnson, wandering aimlessly down Main Street, stumbles upon The Capital Z, a This and That Shop. Stepping inside, he meets Mr. Aloysious Zip, the kind and eccentric shopkeeper, who introduces Peanut to a most extraordinary place. There are toys and trinkets, model cars and miniature wagon trains, even memorabilia from days gone by. Discovering the wonders of The Capital Z, Peanut finds not only anything and everything a young boy could imagine or want, but also history unfolding before his very eyes. Touching a Kentucky rifle hanging on the shop wall, he is transported to the wilderness where he sees his Great-Great-Great-Great Uncle Milkweed Johnson fighting in Andrew Jackson's regiment during the War of 1812. George Washington's sword brings Peanut onto the battlefield where the General, on horseback, dodges bullet after bullet. And while staring at a beautiful stained-glass window depicting the building of the Tower of Babel, Peanut finds himself in a crowd of angry and confused spectators, all speaking a different language! But Peanut's visit to The Capital Z turns out to be much more than a journey through history. As he peers into the past with his Uncle Milkweed and some of America's greatest leaders, he finds courage and hope to face his own mistakes, taking his first steps from boyhood to those of a young man.
Young Peanut Johnson is feeling pretty bummed after a Fourth of July incident that has him in proverbial hot water with his parents. He's walking around town, kicking rocks and feeling sorry for himself when he comes across an unusual and eye-catching business he doesn't remember seeing before. Once inside, he meets proprietor Aloysius Zip. His place, The Capital Z, turns out to be a museum of sorts, all sorts of historical pieces to spark discussion among visitors. Mr. Zip confesses that much of what appears to be artifacts are actually what he calls "historical reminders" (ie. replicas) of the real thing. However, Peanut quickly sees that there is true magic in the Capital Z. Once talk on a particular piece begins, visitors are actually transported back in time to that historical moment, giving them the opportunity to witness history for themselves and see the historical figures in the flesh! One such "reminder" of Mr. Zip's is a rifle that belonged to Peanut's great-great-great-great uncle, Milkweed Johnson (there is an explanation within the novel regarding all the unusual names in Peanut's family, by the way).
This is a short little middle-grade read with very little explanation on the back cover, so I went into it not quite knowing what to expect. I was pleased to find such a sweet and touching story that blends important moral lessons with historical teachings! The tone somewhat reminded me of a mix of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Mr. Magorium's Magic Emporium. Peanut learns about various important moments in history -- such as George Washington and that bitter winter in Valley Forge, Andrew Jackson and his part in the War of 1812, as well as some biblical history on the Ark, Tower of Babel, etc -- and sees how even though many of these figures are revered now, in their time they were just like any mortal man today, sometimes full of self-doubt and capable of making incredibly poor choices that detrimentally impacted the lives of many around them.
While the stories themselves are definitely fast-paced and entertaining, and enhanced by the delightful sketches done by Kimberly Palmer's husband, Jerry, I think this story also provides young readers with the important lesson that we are only human. No one gets life right 100% of the time. It's okay to make mistakes from time to time as long as you strive to be an honest, caring, empathetic person in general. It also teaches that it's important to be upfront and honest when you realize you've made a mistake and do your best to set things right as soon as possible after the fact. Learning these lessons early on will likely empower young readers, helping them grow up to become confident, educated adults with generous spirits. Something the world can only benefit from! I am eager to see how the story of Mr. Zip and his teachings continue with the second (yet to be released) installment, Lucy Jane Pennywhistle Comes Home.
You can peruse the Mr Zip book blog here.
There are also a couple videos available:
Mr Zip And The Capital Z book trailer (personally, I found the trailer a little cheezy, but putting it here for anyone interested)
FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.