Picking up a book about a family’s remote vacation that quickly transforms into isolation feels quite topical while living in quarantine. Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” tells the story of a white family from New York traveling to Long Island for a brief vacation with their two teenage children. Basking in their much-needed respite from the rat race of the city, Amanda and Clay seek to revitalize their marriage and reconnect with their children, Rose and Archie. Their vacation is interrupted when the Black owners of their Airbnb rental, G. H. and Ruth, return from the city with a late-night knock at the door. They tell Amanda and Clay that there has been an unexplained blackout in the city, and they think it would be best to ride it out at the house with them.
Although this story with a plot full of suspense makes the reader consider the reality of a modern-day apocalypse, “Leave the World Behind” lacks compelling characters with believable interiorities, and is full of too many swings, missing potential areas for discussions of race and privilege that would make this book a compelling reflection on humanity.
“Leave the World Behind” is told in a conversational narration which makes for a good on-the-beach read but does far more telling than showing to paint a believable picture of this upper-middle-class family. Alam spends the first few chapters laying out who these characters are — Amanda, an account director; Clay, a professor; Archie, their teenage son; Rose, their naive daughter — but beyond the basic construction of a well-to-do family without much dysfunction, they are rather boring. While this most likely is the intent of the story — to create the average White family thrown into a world of suspense — it does little to keep the reader interested in the characters and their intentions.
Speaking of intentions, Alam desperately wants the world to know that Clay and Amanda want to have sex. While sex in novels can portray intimate ties between characters that allow partners to understand themselves through each other, the sex in “Leave the World Behind” is boring and, frankly, gratuitous. Both Amanda and Clay are obsessed with Clay’s penis, thinking about it constantly in a way that demonstrates little more to the reader than that this book was written by a man. It is a depiction of the carnal that does nothing more than assure this story won’t find its way on a YA shelf.
At times, Alam loses the attention of the reader with a laxity of control over the third-person narrator. “Leave the World Behind” mainly follows the point of view of Amanda, Clay, Archie, and Rose, in that order, but at times it switches to follow the interiority of some of the secondary characters. Although this may not seem like a horrible feature of the narrative style, part of the story’s suspense is the paranoia that the family, especially the parents, have towards some of these characters. When the narrator focuses on these secondary characters, the reader knows that they aren’t lying and the reader’s feeling of paranoia reverts to simply an understanding that the parents are paranoid — now, unjustly.
One interesting point of narration, however, directed towards Amanda and Clay’s interior thoughts is the focus on racial dynamics. Often, Amanda and Clay, through free indirect speech, acknowledge potentially racist thoughts, one of which is Amanda’s kneejerk reaction to assume that G. H. and Ruth are lying about owning the house because they are Black. Although this premise itself is not believable, as Amanda would have seen G. H.’s picture on in his Airbnb profile when making the reservation, it sets the story up for a thoughtful provocation of race and wealth. Alam, however, doesn’t build on these reflections past recognition of their existence.
While we shouldn’t box writers of color into an expectation of placing race at the center of all of their works, when race is brought up in this manner but is not considered beyond the surface level, it does a disservice to the development of the characters and the topic of race as a whole.
Its faults aside, “Leave the World Behind” does well in its plot-driven suspense. The short chapters make it easy for the reader to keep going for hours (and so does the relatively underdeveloped narration) that end with mystery after mystery. The twists and turns and unexplained events keep the reader coming back even when the characters and their thoughts drag behind.
“Leave the World Behind” is an intriguing read to fill your weekend of staying home and staying safe, but lacks the characters and narration to take this book to the next level. It strives for a level of depth with its brief contemplations of race and privilege but stops short of making compelling realizations about privilege that would be beneficial — especially during this year’s visible reckoning with the explicit and intricate manifestations of racism in America.