Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is an intense and unnerving read.
There’s so much buzz about Leave the World Behind that I had to read it. But I didn’t really know what to expect. The synopsis is a bit ominous and vague, which is on purpose. The length of the novel is only 256 pages—so quite short. But after reading that Netflix won a huge bidding war for the rights to the film version, which will star Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, I knew I had to read it.
I saw the reviews are very much mixed so I went in with an open mind. I personally really liked it, despite how downright scary it gets. But it’s not a horror film scary, it’s a more realistic, omg, this could really happen, scary.
Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: 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 a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.
Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one other?
Race and class
Amanda and Clay are your typical upper middle class white couple. They have enough money for nice trips but not enough to buy the vacation home. Both consider themselves liberal and watch Maddow. What’s interesting about this book is how domestic it starts off. We read about their trips to the grocery store, getting dinner ready for the kids, having their vacation sex, etc. We get a peek into their parenthood styles and relationships. There’s also constant reminders that the internet is spotty and there’s not much cell service. It’s also very surface level and recognizable to some people reading the novel. But we know that a knock will come that will change their lives forever.
And it comes in the form of Ruth and G.H., an older black couple who own the house. Obviously, they have much more wealth than Amanda and Clay but Amanda, especially, wonders if they’re pretending to be the owners and maybe they’re the “help.” Both remark how they haven’t really been around black people for a long time before. So right there is outright racism from the two of them, who probably are the type to proclaim they’re not racist but not actually understand what they’re saying.
Amanda is so focused on the appearance of G.H. and Ruth that she’s overlooking why these two fled the city for their country home. Things are very wrong back in the city and no one really knows what’s happening.
Now while a different story might have continued to focus on the race relations, soon enough, this devolves into a more dystopian-type novel. But, at the same time, that element never really goes away.
So you might be asking yourself, do I really want to read a dystopian novel in this pandemic era? And I’m with you on that’s not my first choice. But I will say Leave the World Behind, while it might remind you of certain elements—staying home and not really sure what will happen (especially in the beginning)—the novel goes in directions that are very far from our current reality. But still realistic enough that it will unnerve you.
I actually read this on Halloween during the day, which it totally worked for me! But I would not recommend reading this at night before bed because it might keep you up all night.
So to get into the bad reviews, I’ve seen some people struggle with the writing style. As I mention, it starts off quite basic and domestic at the beginning—and that’s all on purpose. When things start to unravel, pay very close to each sentence. The author Rumaan Alam does not spoon-feed you on what is actually happening. In fact, you’ll be left with many, many questions. But he does give a glimpse and several hints through a simple sentence throughout the story. You just have to be patient. And again, it’s a short novel, so it’s not a huge time commitment.
I think your book clubs will have a very lively discussion on all sides of the fence with this one. The hype is real and I look forward to the Netflix movie. Check out my book club questions here.