Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I had mixed feelings about this book, which generated a lot of buzz when it came out, but I continue to think about it.  It’s an unusual blend of character-driven horror, something like Station Eleven. It’s a book where not much happens, but it’s still terrifying.  I would have liked it more except that sometimes the writing style distracted me from what was happening – or not happening – in the story. 

I loved the premise of this book.  Amanda and Clay are a well-off white family taking a week’s vacation in a posh rental house outside of New York City.  They’ve packed all their stuff, arrived at the house, bought groceries, and settled in – when there’s a knock at the door.  An older black couple explains they are the owners, and they’ve left their home in NYC because of a city-wide power outage.  They couldn’t possibly get up to their high-rise apartment and didn’t want to try.  Why should they, when they own a nice place out in the country?

But Amanda and Clay, understandably, feel invaded.  As Amanda notes, they’ve paid to feel like this home is theirs for the week.  What do they tell their children?  And how do they even know George and Ruth are who they say they are?  They have power, but no internet or phone connection, so none of them know what is actually happening, other than a couple of emergency alerts on their phones.

Most of this book happens over just a couple of days, and our main characters know almost nothing about what’s happening, except the fears in their own minds.  The narrator of the book drops tantalizing bits of information about what’s happening in the region, so as the reader, you know a bit more than the characters do. 

I won’t say more about the story, though I loved the build-up of fear and tension.  Two warnings: readers looking for a more action-driven story (rather than character-driven) may find this story dull.  And readers who want everything clearly resolved at the end will be disappointed. 

I liked the race and class issues raised in this story of two couples who are thrown together and forced to rely on each other, and in doing so have to confront their own biases and weaknesses. The author’s emphasis on money resonated, since we are living in a world where this divide is growing so much you can see it in the groceries people buy. In this story you have an end-of-the-world scenario playing out between two wealthy families in a posh country house (how much worse is it then for others?).

For me, the only downside to the book (and it’s a big one) was that I found the writing over-thought at times.  I’m struggling with the right way to put this.  Sometimes it felt pretentious, sometimes a bit too “conscious”, and often over-described. Occasionally it raised issues that might have been interesting in a different story but weren’t addressed enough to be relevant in this story.  I think the author was going for stream-of-consciousness, wanting to really get the reader inside the heads of these four characters, but it didn’t always work. For example, there’s a storyline related to George and Ruth’s contractor, Danny, that just made me scratch my head.

I think with really good horror, it’s simple things that are the most terrifying – like Clay getting lost on country roads without a cell phone or map.  Or strange noises in the sky, or a child losing a tooth.  And then there’s the terror of simply not knowing. These are the things this author gets right, and they are things I’m still remembering a week after putting down the book.

For a story with a similar concept, readers might want to check out The After Days by Amy Ginsburg.

There are books you forget once you put them down. Then there are books you’re a bit relieved to finish, but find yourself appreciating more later. This was that kind of book for me.

  7 comments for “Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

  1. Rachel
    January 29, 2021 at 8:56 pm

    I also really wanted to love this book. It had moments of being great, but overall left me flat and the ending or lack of one left me unsettled. I’m not sure what the trope of the kids were supposed to accomplish. The premise is great but i thought overly hyped.

    • January 30, 2021 at 5:45 pm

      I thought the kids were more interesting narrators than their parents in a lot of ways. I think the author really wanted to focus on parenthood, but I found the parents ridiculous at times, like the mother not wanting to tell her teenage kids anything about what was happening.

  2. January 30, 2021 at 1:23 pm

    If the writing was consistently better or it had a more resolved ending I’d move this one higher up on my TBR list. But for now…I think I’ll pass. Great review!

    • January 30, 2021 at 5:47 pm

      I personally like an ending that leaves some things open-ended – but those two things combined will certainly turn off a lot of readers. Thanks for commenting!

  3. January 31, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    I’m not much for horror, but I do like psychological thrillers and this sounds intriguing, but I’m cautious about what you say about the writing getting in the way. Great writing never gets in the way. Wonderful premise, though.

    • February 1, 2021 at 5:46 pm

      It’s definitely not horror in the traditional sense, and it’s not gory at all. It’s very psychological, which I liked. It won’t be for everyone but it was an interesting read.

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