Skip to main content

Leave the World Behind

Review

Leave the World Behind

Rumaan Alam, author of RICH AND PRETTY and THAT KIND OF MOTHER, returns with LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND, an atmospheric and nuanced novel about two families who find themselves stuck in a remote home as the world slowly changes around them.

Amanda and Clay are normal New York parents. They live in a trendy neighborhood in Brooklyn, care about the marginalized citizens of the world, and try to keep their children safe and hopeful without hiding too much reality from them. This summer, Amanda, Clay and teenagers Archie and Rose have rented a luxury home on Long Island for a week. They plan to spend quality time together, and at first everything is idyllic --- the kids swim, basking in the heady scent of chlorine; the adults drink wine and spend passionate nights together; and the whole family starts to unwind from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

"Claustrophobically tense and provocatively primal, Alam’s third novel is a masterclass in pacing, attention to detail and a keen understanding of the world in which we live and its proximity to destruction."

Late one night, Amanda and Clay hear a sound at the door and find an elderly, well-dressed Black couple waiting outside. George (G.H.) and Ruth Washington are the owners of the house, and they tell the frightened couple that New York City has experienced a blackout. They live on the 14th floor of a building; worried that they could not safely access their apartment, they have fled to their home away from home. Alam sets the scene perfectly, unveiling every tension and prejudice: Can the renters of a house grant access to anyone who claims to be the owner? Is Amanda wrong for picturing the owners of the luxury home to be, well, not Black? And how can these two couples --- and Amanda and Clay's children --- coexist until they figure out what is actually going on?

With no cell phone service, internet or neighbors nearby, the two families agree to stay in the house together for one night, assuming that they will have answers in the morning. When nothing has changed by then, they find themselves at an impasse. Amanda and Clay have rightfully paid for their weeklong stay and are hesitant to leave, especially without a clear idea of what they might find waiting for them back in the city. At the same time, G.H. and Ruth must walk a tightrope between the fact of owning the home and wanting to be polite to their guests --- especially since they are white. Too familiar with the stereotypes of angry Black men and crazy Black women, they do everything in their power to make Amanda, Clay and their children feel at home, even when they are all uninformed and terrified.

As the week drags on, Alam flits between his characters’ minds, providing readers with sharp observations and tension-filled scenes dripping with microaggressions and other nuanced behaviors. But at the same time, both couples realize that if the world is truly ending, they only have each other now, and though they feel isolated and alone in the strangeness of the situation, they cannot ignore the strength --- or beauty --- of their combined households. When odd sounds, animal appearances and an illness start to invade their property, they are forced to trust one another, reshaping their former bonds and creating new, stronger ones as they struggle to find the truth.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND is positively engrossing in its tone, pacing and atmosphere. Alam fills his scenes with tension and then backs away just enough that the space between his characters’ actions and his own hand can be filled by his readers’ minds, preconceived notions and familiarity with different genres. I do not believe that any two people will come away from this novel with the same understanding of the conflict, nor the same expectations of the resolution. Alam’s greatest strength lies in his ability to thrust opposites together, allow them to coexist for just long enough, and then throw something completely unexpected into the mix, forcing his characters to take the next step, whatever that may be. Age/youth, Black/white, wealthy/middle-class --- Alam combines all of these opposites and more to create an exceptionally observed and, frankly, chilling portrait of a world gone wrong.

That said, I found the book to be a tad overwritten. There was often too much detail where there could've been none, and though many scenes were impactful and thought-provoking, I caught myself skimming the less action-packed parts unintentionally. The overall feeling of danger and apocalyptic drama was enticing, but it wasn’t until the final third of the novel that I felt myself fully pulled in, unable to look away or stop myself from turning pages.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND is a genre-bending novel that combines the poignant and terrifying observations of Get Out and WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING with the survivalist drama of books like THE DREAMERS and ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN. Claustrophobically tense and provocatively primal, Alam’s third novel is a masterclass in pacing, attention to detail and a keen understanding of the world in which we live and its proximity to destruction.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 9, 2020

Leave the World Behind
by Rumaan Alam

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062667637
  • ISBN-13: 9780062667632