Review: Severance (plus a comparison to Covid-19)


Author: Ling Ma
Genre: Fiction
Trigger warnings: Pandemic
Read if: You want something to reflect current times.

Synopsis: This novel follows Candace Chen, a millennial, independent New Yorker who works in publishing. We jump back and forth in Candace’s life between pre-and post- pandemic apocalypse. We see the events leading up to her decision to leave New York and the people she encounters after she leaves.

Overview: 3.5 stars. I found the zombie-apocalypse-like nature of the pandemic rather comforting (ironically?). Rest assured that no matter how bad Covid-19 gets, it’s not the end of the world. Even though it feels apocalyptic, we will get through this and there is an end in sight.

Bringing you some quality pictures from my desk as we are responsibly #SocialDistancing

Non-Spoiler Review: I enjoyed this book. I struggled a little whilst reading it as I could never relate to any of the side characters as much and I wasn’t fully invested in Candace’s character. But I think this may just be because I, like many others, had so much on my mind this week. I really did enjoy certain parts of this book (namely, the POC perspective during a pandemic). I also really wanted to see how an author predicted a global pandemic and how the global pandemic actually unfolded.

Comparison to Covid-19 global pandemic (spoiler-free):

What’s inaccurate:

The disease in Severance is called “Shen Fever” which features the association between an identity and a diagnosis. This has been a major point of discussion among public health officials and the disability community world wide. There is a big effort to try and step away from associating identity with diagnosis (i.e. a person with schizophrenia vs a schizophrenic, or Coronavirus vs. “Chinese Virus”). Associating a disease with a particular identity is especially problematic because it generates stigma against a specific group of people and can contribute to the propagation of violence and xenophobia. While it was previously custom to name diseases after their place of origin, the WHO has recently recommended that new diseases be named based on symptoms or other characteristic features. If details about the pathogen are known, then they should also be included as part of the disease name (e.g. coronavirus, influenza, e-coli)

The virus depicted in the novel is much more severe than Covid-19. It has an almost zombie-like effect on the infected, which is certainly not the case for any existing virus. “Shen Fever” also seems to have a 100% fatality rate, which would make it about as severe as rabies (all be it without a vaccine). Covid-19 is no where near that deadly.

What’s accurate:

There were some similarities in the initial measures and responses from the government. Most of Candace’s coworkers began working from home early on in the epidemic and there was a general lack of transparency from the government and media. Both of which we have seen to different extents during the Covid crisis.

Ma also addresses stigma towards various population. First, against homeless people and how they are left increasingly vulnerable during the pandemic. Second, against minority populations especially immigrants who are from the same country as the disease. Although we try our best not to make any associations, there is a stigma that arises against these minority populations. I found that the novel as a whole was a very powerful piece considering current events.

I also really loved the opening line, “The end begins before you are even aware of it. It passes as ordinary.” While Covid-19 is not predicted to be the end of humanity, I think there are many cultural changes that will unfold as a result. It is the beginning of the end in some ways, and many of us didn’t take it seriously at first.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you’ve read this book, what other similarities or differences did you see to the pandemic we are living now?
  2. Whose voices are missing from the conversation? Who do we need to involve and address during a pandemic?

Other Resources: Here are some other resources I trust for updated information on Covid-19.

Buy the physical book here

Get the audiobook here

Follow on Goodreads

Thank you for reading! Please share any resources you have in the comments.

Take care,

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