‘Leave the World Behind’ by Rumaan Alam: On the Precipice of Disaster

Nessa Ordukhani

When Amanda and Clay rent a house in the Hamptons with their kids, Rose and Archie, they expect a pleasant family trip and time away from the city. But before they can fully enjoy their rental home, a late-night knock on the door floods their holiday with a new reality of growing fear and unknowable terror. Standing in the doorway under the cover of darkness are the owners of the rental home, G.H and Ruth Washington, whose surprising arrival they claim is prompted by a widespread blackout in New York City. Unable to connect with news sources, or ascertain any helpful information, the family and the couple are forced inside, trapped between the desire for understanding and the dread of their own ignorance. In his latest novel, Leave the World Behind (241 pages; HarperCollins), author Rumaan Alam presents us with these two groups, vastly different in almost every way, as they learn to survive without modern technology and speculate about whatever apocalyptic scenario might be ravaging the outside world. Beautifully rendered and sardonically crafted, this story tests the bounds of our tolerance when the landscape grows dangerous, and civilization seems on the precipice of disaster.

Upon meeting G.H. and Ruth, Amanda and Clay—who are white—are surprised to find the couple is Black. With no way of verifying what’s truly happening in the city, suspicions and paranoia between them grows, tensions come to a boil, and Alam begins to peel back the layers of the implicit prejudice and deep-seeded bias that afflict them all. Whether it is Amanda’s internalized racism or G.H.’s classist perspective, members of each family struggle with the internal conflicts of their instinctive thoughts and the progressive liberalism they purport to have. Drawing on these dichotomies, Alam points to the contrast between our interiority and the facade we often put on for the sake of appearances.

Forced to get used to living with each other, the characters’ rationality dwindles into a fear of the unknown, and Alam illustrates the sinister tempest of the inexplicable. Strange noises ring out in the air like bombs, massive herds of deer migrate through the forest, and flocks of flamingos encircle the house. As crises upon crises build up, the characters flounder in search of solutions and explanations without their phones and the internet. With a flair for the absurd and satirical, Alam portrays the chaotic feeling of isolation and the terrifying fragility of our modern world.

Painfully relevant to the current state of things, Leave the World Behind explores isolation and morality as the lives of its characters are forever changed. With its rapier wit and palpable tension, the novel offers a glimpse into the psychologically distressing and unnerving nature of confinement.  And in his depictions of survival and Sisyphean attempts at comprehending what’s going on, Alam explores the struggles of parenthood and the burden of caring about one another. As the characters’ anxiety over their incompetence grows, Alam constructs an eerie and addictive story that captures the strengths and pitfalls of humanity placed under mounting pressure.

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