Novelist Rumaan Alam is a master when it comes to building characters both familiar and alien. He can write himself into the skin of a middle-class white woman with aspirations of grandeur; the soul of an upper-class black man who sees the world in facts and money; the (perhaps?) more familiar spirit of a frustrated academic and book reviewer — and, quite tenderly, the shoes of a 13-year-old girl. By creating people who are firmly established (if not wholly likable), Alam thoroughly terrifies us as they face what could be the end of it all in Leave the World Behind.
Alam’s third novel starts off small and familiar, with a middle-class family heading to a luxe Hamptons Airbnb for a summer vacation. The author firmly entrenches us in all the earthly delights of the getaway — too much food, sun, sex and almost sensual boredom — before knocking the family off its axis with the arrival of the Airbnb’s owners, a wealthy black couple: Ruth and G.H. Washington. Alarmed, the Washingtons tell the white couple, Amanda and Clay, that the power has gone out across the East Coast, preventing them from returning to their New York City apartment. Shaken, Clay and Amanda wonder if the Washingtons are telling the truth about owning the vacation home — their thoughts trending into racist territory as they seem stumped that a black couple could afford a nicer life than theirs.
Alam is too good a writer to leave the conflict at that. The book features an omniscient narrator, so we know almost immediately that Ruth and G.H. are telling the truth — and that they’re rather disgusted with how Amanda, Clay and their children have treated their home. The conflict between the families goes beyond racial tensions, however. Cut off from the rest of the world — despite still having power, everyone’s phones are kaput — the group watches as glimmers of Armageddon appear on the horizon: a massive herd of deer migrating through backyards, a rising heat that’s more than just sultry summer and, most chillingly, an unexplainable sound that seems to make one’s teeth fall out.
Through it all, the couple’s dynamics shift and meld and change — from distrust and jealousy to acceptance to something deeper, less explainable. Alcohol is imbibed, clothes are shed (naturally, not sexually) and fears commingle and mount. Meanwhile, Clay and Amanda’s children stumble through the darkness their parents keep them in — their son falling into an unexplainable illness, their frequently fat-shamed daughter proving perhaps as brave as one of the protagonists her beloved YA novels.
Like Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist, Leave the World Behind expertly illustrates the horror of the unknown, the almost painful humanity we feel when facing down the end and, of course, human nature under duress. During an era of plague, racism, hatred, and division, this tale of a vacation gone awry is terrifyingly prescient.
Leave the World Behind is out on October 6th on Ecco. Find the book here.