Books

Rumaan Alam
Leave the World Behind

“What is happening?” the adults in Rumaan Alam’s third novel keep asking one another.

Amanda and Clay, a middle-class white couple, have rented an isolated Airbnb to get away from New York for a few days with their two teenage children, Rose and Archie. Things are going great – much swimming and ice-cream – until a knock at the door one night sees Ruth and George, a rich African–American couple, arrive and announce themselves as the owners of the house. They are desperate, seeking shelter. Amanda sees some alerts on her phone about massive power outages across the country, and then there’s no signal at all. “Don’t you see that something is happening?” Ruth finally announces towards the end of the book, after a tight 200 pages and a slew of unnatural and unpleasant surprises.

The drive of this novel is not really the question of what, exactly, is happening. Reading it feels more like watching the minuscule and continuous inner workings of a timepiece. Each person is constantly recalibrating and reassessing the situation, making dozens of small decisions depending on their prejudices, kindnesses and insecurities. George intuits that this white couple might be afraid of him, and makes a show of his expensive private liquor cabinet to compensate. The purchase and preparation of food becomes fraught. The power of ownership within the domestic space is fascinating: Amanda is particularly uneasy about the arrival of George and Ruth, as “it was unclear whether she was guest or host”. Ruth resents the family’s mess in her nice, carefully designed space. Little grievances accumulate.

The narrative perspective often bounces from person to person on any given page. This can be destabilising and a little confusing at the beginning, but ultimately allows for a powerful cacophony. Not only do we see the thoughts of all six characters, but the reader is also sporadically privy to information this cast is not. Alam sprinkles these breadcrumbs about the wider narrative sparingly and to great effect.

Comparisons with Shirley Jackson and Kazuo Ishiguro are clear, for their conjuring of unease and creepiness, but this work is also reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s masterpiece, Get Out. Bodies and bodily functions are very specific and real (and therefore often gross) and the events are anchored to their geographical setting, evoked with beautiful and uncanny nature writing.

Sometimes authors really do give you everything on a platter: compelling drama, exciting lyricism, the unexpected, and nuanced social commentary. Alam offers all this in a novel short enough to be inhaled by a quick reader in a single sitting. Sublime.

Bri Lee

Bloomsbury, 256pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2020 as "Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind".

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Reviewer: Bri Lee