The world as we knew it changed suddenly this year. We’re still grieving the lives we led, with hopes we can return sometime soon. But as we live our day to day in various states of uncertainty, trying to find a new normal among all the chaos, it is comforting — and sometimes a bit unsettling — to reminisce about the before.
It can be appealing to think back to the single moment that everything changed, that divide between the before and the now. It’s different for everyone: the last time they went to work in person, the last time they hugged a beloved family member or friend, the last time they went to a favorite bar or restaurant. This reminiscing, this tracking back to a moment in time, is really a form of grieving. And it’s accompanied by fear, wondering what will be left of the lives we led, if and when we return to them.
That single lightning bolt, the moment the world changed irrevocably, is the subject of Rumaan Alam’s third novel, “Leave the World Behind,” and it’s strangely comforting subject matter, given the times we’re in.
Amanda and Clay, a white couple, are heading out on a much-needed vacation with their two children, Archie and Rose. They’re striving New Yorkers, struggling to make themselves relevant in a city they barely make a dent in, and now they are on their way to a secluded corner of Long Island for vacation. The couple swims and cooks and makes love, reveling in the silence, the opportunity to find themselves once again without the background noise of their regular existence.
Amanda and Clay’s quiet vacation is shattered not by a power outage, but by a Black couple, Ruth and G.H. Washington, who apologetically arrive at the doorstep of the home they own — the one Amanda and Clay have rented. “This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived,” Amanda thinks to herself shortly after meeting the Washingtons. Her discomfort is palpable, and while she tries to cloak it in frustration about the interruption itself, her true feelings and instinctual responses are laid bare for the reader.
Ruth and G.H. bring with them bad tidings: There’s a blackout along the East Coast, no one knows why, and nothing is working. Everyone’s phone is dead. The easy, effortless forms of communication at our fingertips are gone. Unsure of where to go, or how to handle it, they returned to what they considered a place of safety. Together, the couples, as well as Archie and Rose, must grapple with what is happening around them, as they are cut off from any sources of information — or other people. Alam sprinkles in tidbits about what’s happening in the rest of the world — information the characters are unaware of — that underscore how serious their plight is. The world will be forever changed, he implies. When they look back, these will encompass the last moments of normalcy any of them had.
Alam’s descriptions and details immerse you in his world; his character descriptions are almost repulsive in their beauty. “Amanda remembered being shocked by how loud the children had been as infants at her breast,” he writes. “Draining and suckling like the sound of plumbing, dispassionate burps and muted flatulence like a dud firecracker, animal and unashamed.” Alam’s narrative shifts easily between the gorgeous and the repellant; in his writing is embodied both beauty and the horror of our daily existence. It’s an incredible gift, and one he uses to great effect throughout this novel.
It’s hard to categorize “Leave the World Behind” in any meaningful way. Is it literary fiction? Yes. Is it a thriller? Sure. Is it science fiction? Not quite, but it could be. On the surface, it’s the story of a married couple and their children facing a disastrous event. But it’s also about relationships and interpersonal dynamics, about structural inequity and jealousy and biases that are so deep-seated you don’t even notice them. It’s about coming of age, and fear, and all the things that make us human.
It may seem like reading a book about the moment the world changes might be unsettling right now. Instead, bearing witness to the range of emotions, the panic, the uncertainty and fear and doubt on a small scale, within this household, provides some comfort. There are no easy answers, but in the midst of uncertainty, we have each other to rely on. And maybe that will get us through.
LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND
By Rumaan Alam
Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99
Swapna Krishna is a writer and journalist based in Pennsylvania. You can find her on Twitter @skrishna.