The “vacation gone wrong” trope is a familiar one, but as Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind proves, when it’s done well, it can really shine.
The novel opens with Clay and Amanda, a Brooklynite couple with two teenage children, arriving at their rented Airbnb, tucked into a rural corner of Long Island. Everything seems peaceful, until late one night when there’s a knock at the door, and a couple, the Washingtons, arrive, claiming that this is their home and there has been a massive blackout in New York.
What results is a bottle episode unlike any other, as the two couples attempt to navigate the confusion of this impending disaster, while confronting their own prejudices about each other. The tension is helped by the fact the blackout knocks out all cell phone and Internet service, and the families are left to investigate what happened with next to no support. Alam smoothly transitions between the perspective of multiple characters, and the plot moves so briskly this book becomes impossible to put down. The late-summer setting is transportive, reminding me of my family’s summer trips to Jersey Shore beach rentals (although none came close to this level of chaos), capturing the feeling of living in someone else’s home and play-acting at the idea of living somewhere else. Since finishing this book, I’ve felt in the same sort of hangover that you feel after coming back from vacation–someday we’ll get to feel that again, right?
The mystery is dizziying, with palpable frustration as the characters desperately try to figure out what happens, while Amanda and Clay debate over whether or not the Washingtons are telling the truth or trying to con them. Alam finds a sort of beauty in the end of the world, with stunning passages of the Long Island wildlife that encroaches on them and the lushly decorated home they’re holed up in. I know saying anything “speaks to our current moment” wants to make us all collectively barf right now, but I suspect that this might be one of the few to emerge victorious, simply because it captures the 2020 moment with such quality and lip-biting tension.
The ending is far more frustrating than I expected it to be–if you really, really need everything to be tied up nicely, this definitely isn’t the book for you. But the prose is compelling and enchanting, and I liked the ambiguity that this ended in, proof that there can still be a light at the end of the tunnel even in the darkest of times. In a year that’s felt like a disaster, the news of the Biden-Harris win was a moment of light for me, and Leave the World Behind felt like just the right read going into 2021, whatever it brings.
Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury UK for the review copy.
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