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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A family’s vacation is cut short by crisis in Rumaan Alam’s Leave The World Behind

Illustration for article titled A family’s vacation is cut short by crisis in Rumaan Alam’s iLeave The World Behind/i
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

It’s funny how the time of day can change the meaning of a knock. An unexpected rapping on the door during daylight hours is usually the work of a neighbor or door-to-door evangelizer—the warning sign of an imposition. A knock on the door in the middle of the night is something more fraught and ominous. The late-night visitor—their motives unclear, their timing portentous—is an enduring staple of suspense fiction and horror. What makes them so unnerving isn’t just that their presence is a violation of the peace and quiet of your evening; it’s that you have to choose whether to invite them in. You’re asked to gamble on your faith in humanity and hope that it will be rewarded.

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That nocturnal knock on the door comes early in Leave The World Behind, the latest novel by Rumaan Alam. Alam spends the first 30 pages sketching out a picture of domestic tranquility before that knock disrupts it like a bowling ball landing in a pond. Amanda and Clay, a white, upper-middle-class (she’s a marketer, he writes book reviews for prestige publications) couple from New York City, bring their kids, Archie and Rose, out to a woodland rental home in Long Island to get away from it all. Their vacation bliss—the kids exploring the woods and gorging on hamburgers, the parents fucking and getting buzzed after-hours—is interrupted when an older Black couple, Ruth and G.H., knocks on the door seeking sanctuary. Claiming to be the owners of the house that the family is renting, the strangers say that a blackout has plunged New York City in darkness and the power is out across the East Coast—everywhere except for this remote house in the woods.

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His third book finds Alam in new thematic territory. While the author continues to explore themes of family, parenthood, race, and the compromises of marriage that his previous books handled so gracefully, Leave The World Behind showcases a darker side to his writing. This stylistic shift comes early in the book, with its frequent allusions to the decay of nature: He describes Rose and Archie as having “pink skin splitting like summer fruit,” and explains that the rental’s fence is there to keep deer from falling into the pool where they would “drown, swell, explode, a horrifying mess.” It’s the kind of book where a wife can, in the same paragraph, think about her enduring love for her husband and also imagine being completely fine moving on if he died. Impending doom hangs over Alam’s prose like power lines—their humming ever-present even during the book’s brighter, more contented chapters.

Another major difference between Leave The World Behind and his previous novels is Alam’s compelling use of an omniscient perspective. In 2016’s Rich And Pretty and 2018’s That Kind Of Mother, his narratives were focused around one or two characters. In Leave The World Behind, we get inside the heads of all the principal characters; Alam also broadens the scope beyond that house in Long Island, giving us elliptical glimpses into what’s happening in the world outside that his characters can’t see.

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Alam’s always excelled at developing well-rounded female characters. Rich And Pretty’s protagonists, Sarah and Lauren, feel so authentic and true to life that it makes up for that book’s lack of forward momentum. Rebecca, a well-off white woman who adopts the son of her deceased Black nanny in That Kind Of Mother, is such a complexly rendered figure that that book serves as a powerful rebuttal for anyone who thinks that men can’t write convincing female characters or that people should only write about those from their own demographic or cultural background.

Amanda, Ruth, and Rose are given a similar amount of care and shading in Leave The World Behind. Unlike Alam’s previous books, though, the male characters feel just as richly developed and nuanced as the women. They have to be; in a book like this—a chamber drama that feels like what would happen if Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel took place in an Airbnb—any weak links in the ensemble would make it fall apart.

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The central dilemma that Leave The World Behind reckons with is, unfortunately, very topical: Should we band together for survival, or is it better to stick with your own people? Throughout the book, Alam highlights the economic, racial, and cultural differences between the two married couples—subtly indicating how these differences both push his players together and pull them apart. And while Alam’s book is mostly focused on problems that are rooted in reality, his narrative takes the occasional detour into ambiguous and sinister territory: Animals rove in massive hordes, exotic birds appear where they’re not supposed to, strange sounds pierce the air, and bodies fail in ways they shouldn’t.

Alam paints a compelling picture of a world where all the old ways of being seem to be coming undone, and asks us to watch six people try to come to terms with it. While not quite apocalyptic in its subject matter, it is a book about upheaval on a personal and grand scale. For those of us who are dreading the future, Leave The World Behind can be hard to swallow at times—but the prose is so good it makes the bitterness go down smooth.

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