Book review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

(cover image courtesy Bloomsbury Australia)

When you think of the end of the world, you picture it happening in colours bold and wild, events unfolding on screens before you, death and destruction beckoning, with streets filled with screaming people and sights beyond horrific imagining.

But in Rumaan Alam’s intimately unnerving and gloriously beautifully-written novel, Leave the World Behind, the end of the world, if indeed that is what is taking place – it’s never made explicitly clear what’s going on; simply that it is BAD – manifests in a fog of uncertainty, of a news blackout, of questions on endless repeat searching for answers that show no sign of making themselves readily apparent.

It is, you suspect, very much how something this cataclysmic might actually play out, less with a noticeable bang than a vaguely-defined whimper.

Human beings generally like things to be really obvious and easily grabbed onto; it gives us a surety that we know what this is and what it might mean to us and thus, how we should respond.

We like the knowing of something.

But what if an event is not that accommodating? What if, instead of tickertape breaking news announcement scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens, we simply had … NOTHING.

Eerie, unknowable NOTHING – how would we handle cataclysm in a vacuum?

“She was right, of course. Still, everyone looked at the pendants over the kitchen island, like four people seeking hypnosis. You couldn’t explain electricity at all, neither its presence nor its absence. Were her words an act of hubris? There was the sound of the wind against the window over the sink. Immediately thereafter, the lights flickered. Not once nor twice; four times, like a message in Morse that they had to decipher, like a succession of flashbulbs, but it held steady, it held course, the light held the night at bay. The four of them had breathed in sharply; all four of them exhaled.” (P. 42)

If Leave the World Behind is any indication, not as well as we’d like to think.

When a week away in a beautiful house on Long Island, far from the noise and stress of New York City, turns from idyllic vacation to something much more dark and sinister, Brooklynites advertising account director Amanda and tenured professor Clay (with their teenage kids Archie and Rose) don’t handle things as flawlessly as they might imagine.

We all like to imagine we’d be the person running into the burning children to rescue children on the third floor; or standing up to bigots on a crowded train; or taking charge when the world has quite clearly fallen of its status quo axis.

But when the hypothetical becomes the actual, how we react is not nearly as straightforward as we’d like to imagine.

Much of that has to work in the one-house world of Leave the World Behind with the fact that Amanda and Clay, with phones down, TVs on the blink and no sign of any life nearby, have next to nothing to go on.

So, when the owners of the home they have rented, Ruth & George aka G. H., turn up on the doorstep unannounced, the amount of reference points they have at their disposal to frame some sort of cohesive, rational response, are next to nothing.

All they know is that the internet and the TV are on the fritz (thankfully the electricity and water stay on) – that happens all the time though, right?

Not necessarily the end of the world surely? Or is it?

Rumaan Alam (image courtesy official Twitter account)

No one actually knows.

All Ruth, a retired private school employee and financier G. H. know is that as they were leaving the theatre after a night out that the Manhattan became enveloped in darkness, a stranger of lights out and unresponsive traffic lights and weird, unnerving silence.

Amanda gets some alerts on her phone about an East Coast blackout and a hurricane cutting a swathe through crowed bastions of American urban life, but with the internet down, all she are tantalising headlines and no actual, usable detail.

Leave the World Behind then settles into a quietly uneventful, in terms of the kind of big, brash events we are used to in novels that take place against settings of disaster or world’s end, narrative that focuses far more on how people react to a complete disruption of their lives.

Or the suggestion that that is happening, anyway.

Truth be told, no one has any idea what’s actually going on, and as the days wear on, and all there is to do is eat expensive hummus and make luxuriant sandwiches and pasta – these are all people who are used to privilege and answers and who handle their absence rather poorly; but then who of us really would? – and talk in endless circular questioning pointlessness, their notions of how the world should be, framed by class and social strata, come hard against the reality of a world in upheaval.

“Television would have been palliative. Television would have stunned them, entertained them, informed them or helped them forget. Instead: the three of them sitting around a television that showed them nothing, the pleasant orchestra of the rain against skylight, roof, deck, canvas umbrella, treetop, and the clatter of Rose—“I can do it by myself!”—in the kitchen, and then the chemical scent of her cake from a box, puffing up in the gas oven.

‘We need to fill the bathtubs.’ Amanda wasn’t sure what was required. She was guessing.” (P. 151)

While the unlikely inhabitants of the house in the isolated rural idyll of Long Island do their best to adapt to the presence of each other, in a vacuum of information which gives them no way to frame or fully articulate their fears, readers are given some insight into what is happening in the world at large.

An unnamed narrator of some kind, who pops up in the middle of a narrative which never goes full disaster, forever and unnervingly stuck in the fearful lead-up, talks of bombs and people dying in elevators and a city and world overwhelmed by some kind of cataclysmic trouble.

They are snippets only, and only the readers are privy to them, with Amanda and Clay, and Ruth and G.H., only able to conjecture and ruminate with no clear idea of whether they are even remotely close to the mark.

Leave the World Behind is a brilliant piece of writing, taking a deep dive into the way people handle fear when its exact parameters are not clearly laid out for them, something the 24/7 news cycle has become quite adept at doing.

We are told what to fear and how to fear it, and rely on being told exactly how we should or might react; but our household of strange bedfellows have no such guidance and so are thrown back into wondering and flailing about, something which remains almost a permanent state of existence for them in a novel which never proceeds to telling us explicitly what horrors have befallen the world.

And that is this novel’s genius and allure; it leaves it characters in a state of perpetual suspended animation, fearful of something but not sure entirely what, making Leave the World Behind a skilled and thoughtful dissection of the privileged human psyche under pressure and how quickly life can change while leaving us racing and struggling to catch up, not always elegantly or well.

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