Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Published by Bloomsbury
Available from all Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong
Amanda and Clay head to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a holiday: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But with a late-night knock on the door, the spell is broken. Ruth and G. H., an older couple who claim to own the home, have arrived there in a panic. These strangers say that a sudden power outage has swept the city, and – with nowhere else to turn – they have come to the country in search of shelter.
But with the TV and internet down, and no phone service, the facts are unknowable. Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple – and vice versa? What has happened back in New York? Is the holiday home, isolated from civilisation, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?
What I Say
Hand on heart, I was slightly hesitant about starting Leave the World Behind. I am not good with horror books, and especially gory things. It has been all over social media, with no one really explaining why it is so disturbing, so I started to read it with more than a little trepidation.
The thing is, the reason Leave The World Behind is one of those novels that leaves you more than a little stunned and a lot speechless, is because of what is not said, what is not explained, and how you as the reader are left to fill in the blanks of the story.
Amanda and Clay, and their teenage children Archie and Rose seem to be the embodiment of the picture perfect American family. Both Amanda and Clay have successful careers, and their children lead full and privileged lives. When Amanda decides to book a luxurious holiday home in Long Island, it seems like the most wonderful plan.
In a remote location, with little or no internet connection, the house is beautifully furnished, filled with everything the family could wish for. Little by little the family start to unwind and enjoy their time together. That is until one night there is a knock at the door, and it is an elderly couple called the Washingtons who claim that this is their home, and they need to be there because there has been a massive power cut throughout New York and this is their place of safety.
Reluctantly Amanda and Clay let them in, and are obviously uneasy and mistrustful of them – and although they never explicitly say it, we as a reader absolutely know it is because the Washingtons are black. It is that unspoken and ingrained racism that permeates their unconscious reaction to them, however liberal they may claim to be.
As the strangers are thrown together, unable to find any concrete information about what has happened as they cannot connect to the internet, they are forced to confront the fact that they have no way of knowing what will happen next. While they are adjusting to the new set up, slowly strange, inexplicable things start to happen. There are spontaneous incredibly loud noises that sound almost like sonic booms, Clay takes the car out and cannot find his way anywhere except back to the house, beyond the perimeter of the fence, hundreds of deer are congregating, and when Archie is suddenly taken poorly, his teeth start to fall out.
We are also drip fed snippets of information in incidental paragraphs as to the scale of the horrors that are happening beyond the world of the families, and how the world is slowly heading towards natural and technological disasters on an unprecedented scale. Yet they have absolutely no clue, and instead start to relax in each other’s company, confident that they will be able to find solutions soon. It is interesting to note how when they are dislocated from the social and economic constraints and expectations of the world that they start to live more freely.
It is only when the families decide they need medical help for Archie that they make a life changing decision.
Rumaan Alam’s novel succeeds precisely because it is set in a world we all recognise and are comfortable in. We can relate to both families – we see the family familiar to lots of us; trying to have a relaxing time balanced with the demands of their teenagers, being in someone else’s home so you are always slightly on edge, and the frustrating lack of technology when it has become second nature to you. Yet we also empathise with the Washingtons, who faced with a world of uncertainty simply want to find comfort and reassurance in the very place they call home. They too are away from what they know and cannot reach their daughter, and the place that should be a place of comfort and peace is occupied by strangers who are sleeping in their bed and taking over every part of their house.
I felt that the narrative moved along at the perfect pace, and I thought it was interesting to see the development and flourishing of the characters as they become more reliant on each other. I thought that the Washingtons as the novel progresses became almost surrogate parents and grandparents. I also liked how the seemingly quiet and unassuming Rose was actually the character with the most resilience and resolve, and seemed to understand what her family would have to do to survive for as long as they can.
Leave The World Behind left me with lots of questions when I had finished it. What would happen to the families? When the supplies run out, what is next for them all? What caused these events in the first place? That for me is the quiet and understated brilliance of this novel. The reader is not given a neat and convenient ending to smugly close the book, instead the resolution is as easy or as complicated as you want. Your imagination is the deciding factor in the final reading of the novel, and that is what makes it so difficult to describe to others, and so absolutely impossible to forget.
Thank you so much to Emilie Chambeyron at Bloomsbury for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.