book review: Severance by Ling Ma



Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2018


There are a lot of elements from Severance that we’ve all seen before – the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.

Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum – it’s heavy-handed but it works – but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.

I did think the book’s structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn’t really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can’t wait to see what Ling Ma does next.

20 thoughts on “book review: Severance by Ling Ma

  1. Great review! This sounds so promising, I’m really looking forward to picking it up! I generally can’t stand zombies, but Ling’s take on them sounds so intriguing (and not totally gross) that I think this will be the zombie book for me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t like zombies either and I still loved this! I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I had known it was a ‘zombie book’ in any way shape or form, but it’s really not like that at all. It’s SO haunting in more of a psychological way.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Psychological haunting is definitely more intriguing than zombie gore! I did hear about the zombie aspect of the book right away, but mixed with the satire element it sounded worth picking up.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Most definitely! There’s a bit of gore in Severance but it’s less like ‘haha this zombie ripped this guy’s head off isn’t that cool’ and more like, this is what happens to a body that’s been decomposing for weeks because civilization has been wiped out and there’s no one to take care of the undead body situation… So you will probably cringe a couple of times but it’s not really gratuitous.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great way of putting it! With some books you get the impression that the characters’ journeys continue after the book ends, whether or not you’re reading along with them, but this one just kind of… ended.


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