Leave the World Behind

While reading this book, I kept thinking, “did Rumaan Alam think his book would be so timely when he was writing it?”  The topics of race, class, and family would have been enough to make this a very 2020 book but how could anyone have known that a book that discussed those topics AND a global catastrophe would be written pre-2020, only to be released at the end of what feels like the longest year ever?  As much as I loved this book, I would hesitate to recommend it right now, solely based on the content, knowing that some people might not want to read about the beginning of the end of the world while we are still dealing with a pandemic. However, if you feel like you can handle this topic right now, this book is one that you will be hearing about a lot over the next few months (Netflix bought the rights before the book was even released and Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington are already set to star in the adaptation,) and I really enjoyed this one, as much as you can enjoy a sad, semi-apocalyptic book.

Amanda and Clay are a white couple from Brooklyn who have rented a house in the Hamptons with their two children for the summer.  Their quiet retreat is broken when the homeowners, G.H and Ruth, an older, wealthy black couple, come back unannounced due to a major blackout in New York City.  Amanda and Clay are suspicious, surely they would have heard about a major event like this, and the tension soon rises in the home.  There is no cell service or internet in the home, the cable stops working, and they don’t know who or what to believe. What happened in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, truly a safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?  

This book is not for everyone, and the reviews show that.  I have seen everything from “this book is a masterpiece” to “this book is boring, nothing happens.”  If you are looking for a story where everything is made clear, where you find out what is happening, and things are wrapped up nicely, this is not the book for you.  The tension in the story comes from not knowing what is happening, not knowing if there is truly a catastrophic event starting, from the fear that is slowly seeping into the house and the minds of its occupants.  Questions of trust, including who and what you can trust become something both couples find themselves asking themselves even as they begin to realize they will have to rely on each other more and more. Alam doesn’t leave readers completely in the dark, dropping little clues here and there about what is going on around the world even as what he tells leaves us with more questions as the reality starts to turn horrifying.  While this is all going on, it would be easy to miss the slight nods to the race and class issues that are apparent between the couples, but I think that’s Alam’s point.  We tend to think of racism in this country as big, in your face moments where you cannot miss the obvious racism; here it is more subtle.  An example of this would be the first interaction between Amanda and G.H and Ruth.  When Amanda is struggling to piece together who these people are at the door, intruding on her vacation, she immediately thinks they might be the gardener or the cook, not the owners.  Would she have thought this If they were white?  It is tiny things like this that crop up throughout the book that perfectly capture the current state of race and class in this country right now and it’s done in a very effective manner.  

I found this book to be unsetting and haunting and very realistic, especially given the current time we are living in.  However, I know what kind of books I like, and I don’t mind books where “nothing happens.”  And this is a book where very little happens in terms of action.  It is one weekend, a few people in a house, and the unknown world around them.   It’s at times a tough book to read, and I would imagine it would be even tougher if you are a parent. So be warned but I also would encourage anyone who thinks this book sounds at all interesting to give it a chance…and then let me know your thoughts, good or bad.  Love it or hate it, this novel would make for a great discussion in a book club.

Favorite Quote: “Worry was infinite.”

Author:  Rumaan Alam

Published:  October 6,th, 2020

Rating:  4 Stars

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