I eagerly awaited my opportunity to read LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND, by Rumaan Alam, a novel that has received a lot of attention and hype this season.
I have mixed feelings.
First, what I really liked.
Some of the writing is stellar, the novel moves briskly along, and it clocks in at a trim, bloat-free 241 pages.
The premise itself is powerful and promising: a white Brooklyn family heads out to the tip of Long Island for a week’s vacation at a remote Airbnb rental house. A day after their arrival, the owners of the house—a wealthy and older Black couple—show up, having fled their own Manhattan apartment following an unexplained blackout in the city. Guess who’s coming to dinner, except who has claim to the house?
This premise comes with a lot of thematic and storytelling possibilities: racial tension, a reverse wealth gap, the cause of the blackout. The author doesn’t fully commit to any of them.
I was uneasy at the beginning, when the white characters—parents Clay (professor) and Amanda (advertising exec), and young teenage children Archie and Rose—are described rather than developed. They come right from central casting.
Immediately I thought: Is this how Black authors see white characters? Is this some kind of karma for how legions of white authors have stereotyped their Black characters?
But then when the owners, George and Ruth Washington show up, it’s clear they don’t have much in way of character depth about them, either. George got wealthy doing something in finance; Ruth’s raison d’etre seems to be that she’s a mother and a grandmother.
The scene of Ruth and George showing up at night and ringing the doorbell, which elicits racist suspicions on the part of Amanda and Clay, is both believable and not believable. Who are these Black people? Are they going to cut our throats? But the Washingtons are older, well-dressed, well-mannered, driving an $80,000 car. Home invaders? Hardly.
And yet, Clay and Amanda react badly. In fact, they never react well or honorably to anything, which becomes apparent as the novel continues and the blackout turns out to be more of a near-apocalyptic event that is never completely defined.
My main issue with the novel is that Clay and Amanda are almost embarrassing, while Ruth and George are uninteresting. What keeps the momentum going are the kids, who seem more real than the adults, and the unnamed disaster, which manifests itself through downed communications networks (no cell service, no WiFi, but the lights are still on at the house), followed by several loud noises, and then strange animal behaviors, and a constant reminder from the omniscient narrator that something bad happened.
I found the omniscient narrator a good choice when it came to the unfolding of the horrible event, but a failure when it came to the characters. A closer point-of-view would have helped us know the characters better, and the constant shifts of perspective, even paragraph to paragraph, were disorienting. Whose mind are we in now?
Another disappointment is that the narrator seems to have little empathy toward his characters. The choices made in terms of character thought, action, and dialog are not generous. It’s not only that I didn’t like the characters enough, they weren’t complex or interesting enough. They weren’t cared for enough by the author. The themes of wealth disparity and racial tensions died on the vine in the face of disaster.
Still, I recommend the book. It’s ambitious in many ways and worth reading. I’d love to hear what other people think.