Another first-time, female author– are we sensing a thread here? I guess this is the season of debut fiction for me, and hey, I’m not mad at it. I’m especially not mad at it in this case, because Ling Ma’s first effort is pretty effing phenomenal. There’s always a risk when reading an author’s first work because they don’t have a track record to give you an idea of what to expect and there’s no foundation for lending the author the benefit of the doubt. Add to this that the new author likely hasn’t yet honed their craft, and may not have even discovered his or her voice yet.
None of these are the case with Severance, which paints a bleak world with beautiful strokes and flows with ease between timelines. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that is so special about this book, because it’s not showy or complex. It possesses very little plot or action, few characters, and the characters who do populate the world aren’t all that unique or interesting. I should also note that while I enjoy relationship-based/grounded Sci-Fi, I’m not a big fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. So what in the hell did I like so much about this book? I think the best way to describe it would be that it struck a perfect balance: between dealing with external, global issues and an individual woman’s interior life; between being beautifully written and literary, without being pretentious or gratuitous; between being contemporary and timeless.
The atmospheric quality of Severance is immediately apparent, as Candace’s world is wrought with precision and poetry. The settings of 2010-era New York City (“its charms as illusory as its facade of authenticity”) and post-apocalyptic Midwest are visceral, and the time period Ma chose– which makes this more a work of revisionist history than a possible future scenario– helps to ground it in reality. I’m not sure whether it would’ve been more effective had it been placed in a near-future, as there was a part of me that stayed outside the story partly because I knew this hadn’t actually happened.
What stood out to me were the little philosophical flourishes and wonderings, a la “The internet is a flattening of time. It is the place where the past and the present exist, on one single plane… It is the place we go to commune with the past.” How beautiful and relatable is that?
And what about this: “Let us return, then, as we do in times of grief, for the sake of pleasure but mostly for the need of relief, to art.” It’s as if Ma is reaching out to the reader, grabbing her by the heart, with the full knowledge that she has sought solace in art many times before, and may very well be doing the same in reading Severance. Maybe that interpretation is too meta, but I don’t think so. I think Ling Ma knows what she’s doing, conversing with the reader so closely, Candace just a thin membrane separating the author from her audience.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Buy Severance on Amazon
P.S: What do you think of the cover art? I got a digital copy, so perhaps it looks better in print? I found it underwhelming– which may actually have set me up to have very low expectations, which then allowed me to enjoy it even more, as I was surprised.