Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

1. First lines. 2. Published 2020 Bloomsbury Harper Collins 3. Deer polygons Art [Public Domain] via Pixabay 4. Road, traffic [Public Domain] via Pxhere 5. New York skyline [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia

A family, Clay and Amanda and their teenage children Rose and Archie, are taking a holiday from their busy lives in New York at a remote Airbnb luxury house at Long Island. One night soon after they arrive, an older couple Ruth and G.H. arrive unannounced claiming to be the owners of the house. They tell of fleeing from New York in the wake of an unexplained power outage in the city, afraid of disaster, and expecting to stay at their house with Clay’s family. TV and internet are down, so their story cannot be confirmed. Some very strange things happen, and Clay and Amanda become increasingly unsettled, trying to decide what to do.


“They were not afraid, the children, not really.”

” … that was how everyone saw themselves, as the main character of a story, rather than one of literally billions, our lungs slowly filling with water.”

“There was a menace in the woods and Rose could feel it, and another child would have called it God. Did it matter if a storm had mestasized into something for which no noun yet existed? Did it matter that the electrical grid broke apart like something built of Lego? Did it matter if Lego would never biodegrade, would outlast Notre Dame, the pyramids at Giza, the pigment daubed on the walls at Lascaux? Did it matter if some nation claimed responsibility for the outage, did it matter that it was condemned as an act of war, did it matter if this was pretext for a retaliation long hoped for, did it matter that proving who had done what via wires and networks was actually impossible? Did it matter if an asthmatic woman named Deborah died after six hours trapped on an F train stalled beneath the Hudson River, and that other people on the subway walked past her body and felt nothing in particular? Did it matter that machines meant for supporting life ceased doing that hard work after the failure of a backup generators in Miami, in Atlanta, in Charlotte, Annapolis? Did it matter that the morbidly obese grandson of the Eternal President actually did send a bomb, or did it matter simply that he could, if he wanted to?

My thoughts:

Recommended for anyone who wants a totally original story, a disaster story that doesn’t follow any particular generic structure. This is a brooding, menacing and suspenseful story – one in which the reader knows that a disaster is happening but not exactly what it is. The reader wants to get to the ending to find out. It’s an unconventional ending, and for me, not entirely satisfying. I was quite confused by the characters’ responses to unexplained and random events. They seemed unrealistic, but perhaps that’s the nature of human behaviour, that it’s unpredictable. At times, I also felt that I was reading a commentary on too many of the issues that face our world – racism; reliance on technology; war; terrorism; environmental disaster.

Book reviews:
  • The New Yorker: “Leave the World Behind” is a coy little thing: a disaster novel without the disaster….In most literature of this ilk, the disaster, whether rising seas or a virus, is a force of narrative tension: the reader is keen to learn how humans move from a time of upheaval to one of stability. Alam never gets there; upheaval is all his characters have. His achievement is to see that his genre’s traditional arc, which relies on the idea of aftermath, no longer makes sense.
  • The Guardian: Leave the World Behind is an extraordinary book, at once smart, gripping and hallucinatory. It’s no surprise that Netflix is working on an adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. When future generations (if that term doesn’t sound over-optimistic at the moment) want to know what it was like to live through the nightmare of 2020, this is the novel they’ll reach for.
  • New York Times: Still, if the first half can turn a mirror on you, the second half will shatter it. “Leave the World Behind” teeters on that seesaw-edge question in horror fiction: to reveal the monster or not? Ultimately it totters too far to one side, but there is still the primal nail-biting need to know what-the-hell-is-going-on. This propulsion, which drives much of the characters’ decisions, likewise drives the reader onward to a breathless conclusion that, if not altogether satisfying, is undeniably haunting.
Other editions:
Awards: Finalist, National Book Awards 2020 for Fiction

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