Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Published on October 28, 2022

The graphic cover of Leave the World Behind features a black background that draws the eye upward toward the silhouette of trees. Beyond the trees, is dark blue night sky. The title appears in bold capital letters that are shades of green, blue and purple. At the bottom of this very one-dimensional cover is a part of a swimming pool and diving board. The water is a lighter blue and the pool, water, and deck take on a very geometric appearance.

Reviewed by Marybeth Ginsberg

Things appear to be seemingly normal as Amanda, Clay, and their two teenage children prepare for their well-deserved summer vacation on Long Island.  A detailed grocery list prepared by Amanda anchors us in the everyday and gives us a sense of how the days ahead should pass.

Upon arrival, the family spends the first day of their vacation relaxing by the pool. After having settled in, however, the mood quickly changes when on the second night a knock at the door startles the family. Apparently, the owners of the home, G.H. and Rose, have arrived after driving out from the Bronx. They explain that a city—wide blackout has made it impossible for them to return home and that they need a place to stay.

Although uncomfortable, Amanda and Clay, agree. They find it hard to believe that G.H. and Rose could own such a well-appointed home. As the hours pass, the adults are unsure about what is happening. They speculate that it might be a storm, but news alerts are unclear.

Confusion ensues. Clay leaves the house and decides to drive to town to find out what is happening.  He meets a panicked woman on the side of the road, returns to the house, and says little. The kids wonder off to find the neighbor’s house, empty. Then, after hearing a loud noise, Amanda runs into the woods to find her children. 

As the hours pass, things begin to become more and more chaotic. The families try to maintain some degree of normalcy by taking stock of their supplies and preparing meals. Yet, any degree of normalcy only erodes into a complete disarray. Archie, the teenage son, becomes ill. A bout of vomiting one evening leads to the alarming loss of four of his teeth. Rose, the teenage daughter, walks off into the woods to gather supplies from empty house she found earlier, knowing that she must adapt to her new situation. 

A sense of reality quickly fades as the characters are faced with dire and alarming circumstances. At the opening of the novel, readers are grounded with the apparent “normalness” of everyday life that seems characteristic for this middle upper middle-class New York family. However, things are not what they appear, and like the characters, we are never quite sure what is happening. I think readers have a clear sense that doom is imminent when Archie's illness becomes unexplainable. For Amanda, Clay, and their children leaving the world behind as the ad for the vacation home suggested, is clearly out of the question. 

Alam’s novel gives us the sense that things can change quickly, and in some way his 2020 novel captures the sense of unpredictability that many may have felt during the Covid pandemic. Through his characters, Alam explores race and class, and provides readers with a sense of expectation that is quickly challenged as events unfold. If you enjoy riveting novels, then Leave the World Behind may be a great choice for your next book. Alam does a good job capturing our attention and challenging our sense of normalcy through this apocalyptic tale. 

Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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