Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam has caused a stir, with The Independent claiming it as the defining book of 2020.
This is a disaster tale, set in a remote location in the eastern United States. A family holidaying in a luxurious holiday home, team up with the couple who own the house, to live through an enigmatic calamity. In 2020 UK terms, these people form a “support bubble.” Sadly for them, the Internet is down so they can’t get Netflix.
The first thing that struck me was the writing’s odd, unsettling tone. This comes from a point of view that never rests with any one character. Instead, we see things from the perspective of a narrative voice that flits about the holiday home, it’s surroundings, and even, on occasion, various places around the United States. This voice is dispassionate and clinical. When the holidaying wife, Amanda, admires her husband’s handsome shoulders, she is described as appreciating his “latissimus dorsi”. In a way, reading this book is like watching a collection of lab rats running around a pen, whilst a behavioural scientist with lack of empathy and delusions of grandeur, submits them to various stresses.
So this isn’t a book for people who like to fall in love with characters. It relies on the tension of cold narration slowly revealing events, whilst giving us sardonic observations on human nature. These observations are presented as profound truths, wisdom from on high, which can be a bit irritatingly grandiose. For example, there’s a pronouncement that “morality is vanity”, in the sense that people go through the motions of virtue, without feeling the empathy that lies behind generous behaviour. A sociopath might act out virtue because they don’t really know what it is to feel empathy. However, just because the narrator of Leave The World Behind seems a bit of a sociopath doesn’t mean that people in general are that way inclined.
There’s also a mismatch in the way this pitiless, all-seeing narrator is sometimes coy with details, so that we don’t really know what’s going on. Is this an eco emergency, a war, the aftermath of a super hurricane? We only get the vaguest of answers, this lack of clarity not really gelling with a pedantic narrator who can spend a page and a half telling us exactly what is on a shopping list.
Leave The World Behind is a compelling tale, which keeps you turning pages; but I have to be honest, it felt cold and empty to me. And I didn’t buy into its wisdom from on high.