Amanda, an advertising executive, and Clay, an English professor, set off from New York on a summer holiday to a luscious Airbnb in a beautiful corner of Long Island. It is a chance to spend time with their two teenage kids. “For this fleeting moment, the children were still mostly children,” Amanda reasons, ruminating on the deathbed cliché: “Would you remember the night you took the clients to that old steakhouse on Thirty-Sixth Street and asked after their wives, or bobbing about in the pool with your kids, dark lashes beaded with chlorinated water?”
She looks forward to time with her husband too: “maybe they’d fuck — not make love, that was for home”.
This idyll — pregnant with promise — opens Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, and is brought to an abrupt end the night they hear a “shuffle, a voice, a quiet murmur, a presence”. Opening the front door they discover a sixtysomething couple. “A man, black, handsome, well proportioned though maybe a little short . . . He wore a rumpled blazer, a loosened knit tie, a striped shirt, those brown pants every man over thirty-five wears. He held up his hands in a gesture that was either conciliatory or said Don’t shoot. By his age, black men were adept at this gesture.” And his wife, “also black, also of an indeterminate age . . . She looked like the kind of woman you’d see in a television ad for an osteoporosis medication.”
The couple claim to own the house and say they have been forced to flee New York by a power outage. Amanda and Clay check on their phones for news but there is no reception, the television does not work.
Reluctantly, they invite the couple inside. Intense disquiet invades the house as the holidaying family and the homeowners try to determine each other’s trustworthiness, while also speculating on the nature of the threat. As a group and within couples they ricochet through all possible scenarios — terrorism, war, a nuclear accident, mass hysteria — while deciding what to do.
The catastrophe beyond their corner of Long Island forces the adults to confront their true natures. Clay imagined his paternal role as protector and fixer. “Sometimes, looking at his family, he was flooded with this desire to do for them. I’ll build you a house or knit you a sweater, whatever is required. Pursued by wolves? I’ll make a bridge of my body so you can cross that ravine.” Such dreams of heroism are severely tested as the couples hunker down and gorge on food and alcohol, drifting dreamlike through the night and day.
For the reader, the invisible terror outside in Leave the World Behind echoes the sense of disquiet today in a world convulsed by the pandemic. There are intense parallels between the unreality of life in the Long Island bolt-hole described in the book and lockdown. “There was almost something festive about it . . . no one knew what was happening to them, [it was] strangely joyous, or maybe it was collective hysteria.”
Alam, author of Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother, is adept at drawing out the interior lives of the characters. When GH Washington, the homeowner, holds forth on his rise through Wall Street, we discover that the elegant poise he possesses is in sharp contrast to his origins. “How to communicate that he’d never previously considered eating lunch at a restaurant, never mind one like that.”
Alam acutely describes the visceral love of parenting. “Your kid’s voice could wake you up, your kid’s presence could wake you up. Amanda felt Rose’s fat little body rock into the gulf between her and Clay even before she felt the girl’s wet breath too near her ear.”
Relations between the two couples twist and turn. Amanda is irrationally furious at the owners for ruining their holiday. “She blamed them for bringing the world into this house . . . She wanted to drive away from this place and these people.” But she also finds that, in the face of disaster, she needs them. One of sharpest tensions is around issues of race. “Clay knew that he was not good with faces. And he knew that maybe, on some level, he was especially not good with black faces.”
Surprisingly, for a book about the ultimate holiday disaster, the characters’ relationships to their jobs are acutely defined. Work becomes a signifier about class, and reveals the characters’ motivations and beliefs. Clay is “diligent but also (he knew it) a little lazy. He wanted to be asked to write for the New York Times Book Review but didn’t want to actually write anything.” GH Washington, who made his money in private equity, has an almost mystical devotion to finding patterns in financial markets to understand the world.
The book is billed as a literary thriller, and has already been snapped up by Netflix to be adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. By following the unfolding disaster from the perspective of each character, we become less suspicious of their motives, and some of the suspense is lost. Yet the novel excels in its dissection of modern liberal America and forces the reader to confront the limits of their own heroism in the face of disaster.
Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam, Bloomsbury, RRP£14,99, 256 pages
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work and careers writer
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