Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam, is gorgeous and terrifying, expansive and claustrophobic. Satisfying, and disappointing (for some, I’m sure).
It tells the story of a vacation gone wrong: a successful, white, married couple, Amanda and Clay, and their two children rent an AirBnB in the Hamptons. The vacation is thrown into chaos when the house’s owners–the wealthy, older, and black Washingtons–arrive, escaping a vague disaster that’s causing a blackout back in the city.
The story’s language is rich, and centered on the bodies of the characters. The Washingtons’ race is important, as is their age. Clay makes overtures to hide his smoking (badly). Amanda is sexual and confident. The kids are entering puberty, and all its terrors. Vacation is for returning to your body, the book says, and their awareness is our awareness.
As the disaster encroaches on the families’ safety, the large house, and its expansive property, close in. The threat of losing power and water is almost as dangerous as their actual loss.
The class disparity is an important element of the book. Amanda and Clay are doing fine, but they aren’t RICH rich. There’s a difference between renting a house on the Hamptons, and owning a house on the Hamptons as an escape from your other fancy home. But Amanda and Clay aren’t struggling financially the way a lot of other people are. They are still living a life of privilege. Not having an $80,000 car doesn’t make you poor, and that means the few times Amanda and Clay reflect up their financial situation ring a little false. Plot-wise, you maybe couldn’t realistically have an actual poor family staying in the Washingtons’ home, but not having Amanda and Clay reflect upon their good fortune feels like a missed opportunity.
Readers who wanted the details of the disaster will not find it in these pages. By the time the book ends, it could be any number of problems facing the world now. People aching for the details of the destruction will be let down.
Not that it matters. Today’s destruction gives way to tomorrow’s triumph. Or more destruction. We don’t really know. As Rose, the young girl wise beyond her years, decides, the days that feature terrible surprises are little different from every other day, with their breaking suns rising on the horizon, predicting futures we can only ever hope to guess.