Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

A family holiday takes a nightmarish turn when two strangers arrive with bad tidings
Published by Bloomsbury

HAVE you ever had that dream where you’ve suddenly found yourself somewhere and you’re trying to figure things out, when some inner inkling alerts you to a loose back tooth? No, not just loose, LOOSE loose, like it’s really and truly just about to wriggle out up and over your gum, without grace but also without pain; it’s ready to go because its job in your gum is frankly done.

Your inquisitive dream-tongue then tips the tooth over, to your subdued and strangely numb astonishment, and next thing you know you’re back on Candyfloss Mountain or some such place, about to inexplicably leap to another, sturdier plain, but fully realising that once you wake up all will be just as you left it when you fell asleep, with every tooth intact. Won’t it?

Packing the entire family up for a holiday, and convincing them that it’ll be a welcome break is trying at the best of times. Amanda, an executive in an advertising agency who’s secretly glad but feigning irritation that her underlings are emailing her their trite problems as she’s being whisked away for a family vacation, would really love to have the willpower to put her phone to one side and let go of control for the designated time away from the office.

Amanda’s husband Clay is an English professor at City College in New York, a role he’s content in, considering his simultaneous feelings of superiority in his field and subjacent acceptance of his shortcomings.

With Amanda and Clay are their children – sixteen-year-old Archie and pre-teen Rose, both growing into their own identities but willing to put those evolutions on hold for a splash in the rented pool and a poke around the adjacent woodland.

The Air BnB rental is sumptuous, a remote, luxurious holding with plenty of space, a hot tub and under-pool lighting; the perfect place to spend a week before preparing for school to begin again.

Even though nothing is straightforwardly indicated to seem amiss, a trip to the fairly near-by seaside is cut short because of an uncomfortable closeness in the air, and even when the sighting of familiarity – a Starbucks outlet- calms spirits, there’s nonetheless a prevailing, underlying uneasiness.

When a couple unknown to the family shows up in the middle of the night seeking out what they claim, very politely, is their rightful place to take shelter, strange and inexplicable things begin to take shape.

The narrative starts bombastically, peppered with obnoxiously pointed words like “alee”, that will have you reaching for the dictionary and silently wondering why this otherwise pedestrian, if not frequently well observed slice of middle-class life, is pointedly revealing your limited vocabulary.

But then come the strangers. Their unexpected presence in the middle of the night slices a rift in the family’s holiday cocoon, and marks a point from which none of them can ever return.  The strange couple are Black, well-dressed, veering on elderly, and exceedingly cordial, and the family occupying the house are as white and liberal as they come.

Nevertheless, certain unconscious biases are revealed as shelter is being sought, when fear takes hold of even the most rational of people.

While the family has never been quite ambitious enough to compete in the big leagues, the couple that joins them are not only over-achievers, but ultra-achievers. George “GH” Washington has made his “modest” fortune on Wall Street, while his wife Ruth has held her own as a respected administrative assistant in a prestigious high school.

There’s distinct hint of Jordan Peele in the narrative, an influence confirmed by the writer. Peele’s Oscar nominated script for his comedy-horror Get Out is a treatise on institutionalised racism and class, which is also dealt with very skilfully in Leave the World Behind.

The book is disturbingly prescient, in that its world-stopping mystery is something that can’t be avoided by anyone, no matter who they are. The reliance on technology for instant information is thrust into the spotlight, as is the helplessness akin to withdrawl that many of us can’t avoid when our devices aren’t available.

Leave the World Behind casts a light on uncomfortable realities, and also horrors that we can only dream of, veering as it does from very familiar real life into nightmare territory. It’s a book for our times, that will very likely endure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s