London, December 2018
Candace Chen has a boyfriend and goes to work at her job in Bible production until a plague wipes out most of the world’s population. She joins a group of survivors, led by Bob, who make it their daily work to clean up the plague affected pockets that still survive, en route to the promised land, a mall in middle-America. As though that weren’t enough, Candace has a secret that Bob could exploit and soon enough, she’s a prisoner of the brave new world.
There was so much – too much – going on in this novel in me for it to find its centre.
Candace’s narrative starts in the present, within the group of survivors that she was the last to join. The narrative jumps to the recent past, highlighting her relationship break-up and the narrative maintains this to-and-fro throughout. It’s manageable for a while, but around the novel’s middle, Candace spends so much time in the past that she devotes an entire chapter to the characteristics of her four uncles who reside in China whom she barely knows.
With these kinds of asides, which also include the lengthy accounts of how her first sexual relationship led to her first serious relationship (both other halves of which for all we can assume are now dead), the past consumes and fattens too much airtime so that Candace’s alleged present loses any punch.
On reflection, this is one of my biggest gripes with Severance. I’m not saying Ma should have chosen one theme and stuck dogmatically to it, but from the list of themes I identified, more could have been done to help them to gel better, or conversations should have been had about exploring certain ideas in future works. I listed the following:
Yes they can and have worked well together a million times, but in Severance, Candace is a grown adult looking back and the gaze on the past means her coming-of-age has now been rationalised. The dystopia lies in the present but, as mentioned, the present becomes less ‘present’ amongst so many chapters that ruminate on the past.
- Immigration and identity
These themes are intrinsically linked and should work but I found much of it ‘boggy’, if that’s a word. Perhaps the problem is the premise – if at the outset I’m set up to escape into a story of a band of survivors making their way to a new world, that’s where I expect the action to take place.
Yes, the survivors effectively became akin to any team that works together (from an office to a ‘stalk’), but to be fair, the new world order isn’t a new idea, nor did it stand out here.
There is a large cast to take in, depicted as Candace remembers them; I remember her boyfriend Jonathan (defined by an anti-capitalist stance), her colleague Blythe (possibly benefiting from social/class-based nepotism and holds the role Candace wants) and Bob (defined by being bad. Bad Bob as he will now be known).
Other characters appear, most used as signifiers as events and feelings of the narrator – no character rises from the pages fleshed out, none are more than reflections of Candace’s non-linear narrative.
Because of this, I struggled to find the pathos. In the present, members of the survivor group die, some in ways that would have been tragic, had I had the time with them to appreciate their individual plights. As it was, their demises were just another thing that happened to or around Candace.
Candace Chen’s Secret
At some point, I’ll take longer (maybe) to list all the potentially good stories that throw in a pregnancy as a way to stall a character. I find it a super irritating technique as it feels lazy and generally reduces female characters to automatons robotically obeying an unwritten instruction to Panic and Protect.
It was when Candace’s (not very surprising) pregnancy leads to her imprisonment by Bad Bob in the
new-found-world mall that something between me and the novel died. I remember it; I was sitting on a train on my way home from work and felt impatiently cheated.
In defence against my poor opinion
There is also the chance that this is a novel that is actually brilliant, based on the narrative structure. So, in effect, a book I didn’t enjoy but if the theory pans out, its literary technique could make it…better.
We’re told early on that the plague is ‘a fever of repetition, of routine’ so that victims engage in the same actions again and again. The idea of nostalgia as a key factor in the development of the condition is played out as a member of the survivor group tries on dresses in her childhood bedroom.
Could it be that Candace’s mostly past-based meditation is proof she may be on the cusp of the fever? It’s difficult to marry up given her recognition of the plague in others. Arguably, her routine with the group doesn’t change though it does as Chen breaks away from the group mentality at any given point.
But her routine remains similar enough to underscore Ma’s point that a life of routine can make nostalgia a disease. Or that giving in nostalgia for a better time causes you to ignore the stupidity of your moment-by-moment routine.
The novel reads as a contemplation of events passed, and Candace’s detachment or aloofness, the lack of horror despite the horror she describes bottoms out the ending. There’s a difference between meditative reflection and simple detachment. The tone here fell too much into the latter for me.
Candace quietly stepping out on her own was not a deserved ending. That works where characters escape, where they have worked for that release. The only comparator I have for Candace’s solitary walk away is that of someone who attends a party believing the party will be a non-event unless they make the effort to turn up. When they eventually leave the party, no one really cares much because they could have as much fun whether she was there or not.