Initially, Ling Ma’s debut novel Severance feels like two separate books: a not entirely original take on the zombie apocalypse, and an immigrant coming-of-age story. As she cuts back and forth in time, the strand about being a young Chinese-American woman living and working in New York during the first decade of the new millennium feels far more authentic, if somewhat lacking in narrative propulsion.
However, the closer narrator Candace Chen gets to the present, the more compelling the novel becomes. In this particular version of zombie-ism, the victims are gripped by a fever that makes them perform the same rote tasks over and over until they expire. They aren’t quite “undead,” so it’s more than a little mystifying how they can continue on for months without food or water, but once a reader overcomes this quibble, the novel becomes a genuine page-turner.
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In the book’s present, Candace, who has managed to avoid the fever, is pregnant and traveling with a small group of healthy people. Appropriately for a novel with a sharp sense of irony, the “Facility” the expedition’s leader claims will be their refuge turns out to be a mall in suburban Chicago, a place where the zombies themselves would feel right at home. The book’s conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory, but like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Ma’s Severance ultimately manages to serve up a fresh imagining of the end of the world.