Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Published by Ecco
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Suspense
When Clay, Amanda and their children, Archie and Rose, arrive at the secluded house they’re renting on Long Island they’re thrilled to be escaping Manhattan for a week in the summer. The house is beautiful with a pool, woods, and the ocean not too far away. No people, no noise, and barely any cell phone reception. The family quickly shifts into vacation mode. This is the welcoming calm at the beginning of Rumaan Alam’s new novel, Leave the World Behind. A calm that’s going to upended the first night by something as simple as a knock at the door.
A knock at the door is often the precursor to big trouble, but Leave the World Behind is nothing so simple. The late-night visitors are the Washingtons, older black couple who explain the house is their summer home and they’ve arrived from Manhattan because there is a blackout. Amanda is able to confirm the blackout on her phone before she loses service. But how do they know these people are who they say they are?
Even after they accept the Washington’s explanation and agree to let them stay everyone’s guard remains up. Vacation relaxation wanes over the next 24 hours as strangers try and acclimate to sharing space while uncertainty about what is happening grows. What felt like a welcoming environment starts to feel distinctly less safe to Clay and his family, while the Washingtons have worries of their own.
There’s nothing else about the plot of Leave the World Behind you need to know. Much of what occurs is not unexpected and entirely relatable—no GPS means when Clay goes to get information he gets lost and has no way to reach the others back at the house. Ruth, used to returning home to a professionally cleaned and empty house, now has to see how teenagers treat bathrooms and kitchens. The darker human emotions of distrust and resentment battle against fear and a need to stick together.
Alam adds droplets of tension so quietly that by the novel’s midpoint, without realizing it, the reader is submerged in a state of agita. His writing is lean without much emotion, but has the opposite effect, creating heightened emotion. He uses no easy tricks like violence, instead, strips away the modern-day conveniences and social structures that make us feel safe. This, plus an ending that epitomizes where we are now It all comes together so well that, despite my repeated vows to avoid scary reading, I could not put Leave the World Behind down. An ending that epitomizes where we are now only made it resonate more. An intense, well-written, clever novel that proves, once again, less is more.
Want more unnerving reading? I’d recommend The Dinner by Herman Koch and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
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