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Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind comes at a time of unrest, uncertainty, and fear. Published in October 2020, we were already in the full swing of a global pandemic and divisive U.S. presidential elections. Our world has flipped upside down. Everything feels off kilter. To borrow the German word from Freud, it feels unheimlich meaning in a direct translation ‘not homely’, rather than the English translation of uncanny. And I say this because we do not feel safe and homely. One might argue, for many people around the world we are spending too much time at home. But the home has transformed into something else. Suddenly what brought us comfort feels cramped, small, and totally foreign to us. Do we work from home or live at work now? I can’t quite tell the difference anymore.
With all of these things comes worry and dread of the other. We are not as open as we once were. Making friends, finding new people, connecting with the humans around us has been complicated and compromised by a virus that has completely and utterly overtaken the world. We are cautious of the other – are they a bringer of peace, or a bringer of disease?
Alam’s dystopian novel does not necessarily speak of a global pandemic – yet many of the themes he explores throughout his novel echo in our contemporary society. Clay and Amanda have rented a house outside New York for a summer vacation with their two children, Archie and Rose. In the middle of the night, the owners of the AirBnB show up, an old black couple in their 60s, G.H. and Ruth. They tell them that something has happened – but they don’t know what. There is no power in New York, they left the city and came to their holiday home seeking refuge.
Already the play on race – are black people even capable of owning holiday houses in the same way other white upper middle class Americans do? – trickles into the minds of Clay and Amanda. Although, in true awkward white fragility, Clay and Amanda never seem to convey these feelings beyond a glance between on another, a twitch of the back.
This novel doesn’t give you the whole story of how this tragedy unfolds, but rather asks the question: what would you do in the first few days of the world’s end? How would you spend your time? Where would you go? What would you do?
Rose and Archie start seeing deer, hundreds and thousands. Flamingos show up in the pool. Nature is bristling and if only they could look, if they could really see beyond their phone screens, they might figure out what is going on.
Everyone is obsessed with getting their phones to work, to receive some kind of news of what is actually happening. Although there is radio silence. No one seems to know anything. They hear a few noises that might be planes, or bombs. Archie thinks he heard something break the sound barrier, but their phones tell them nothing.
When Clay goes for a drive he gets lost – no google maps in a crisis. He sees a woman on the side of the road speaking Spanish, but he doesn’t understand her. She speaks to him in rapid-fire Spanish, but out of embarrassment or perhaps fear, he leaves her on the side of the road and drives off. When he finally makes his way home, he lies and tells no one of the woman. This Spanish woman (much like nature), we never learn what she had to say or who she was, holds the key to the whole novel – everything that could be said if only people could understand the words.
Archie’s teeth fall out, he starts to vomit and is unwell. Amanda wants to take him to a hospital, just as Rose goes missing. Rose is perhaps the only savvy one amongst the characters and manages to find her way to another holiday house where she raids the cupboards for food and supplies. She will make it, somehow. The others, might be a different story.
Alam leaves you guessing in his novel. Even though you will want more from the story, you won’t get it. It is the first days of confusion, and while the omniscient narrator seems to know more than they are letting on, we don’t get the answers, not yet anyway.
It is no wonder that this novel is being turned into a film. It hits you hard and unsettles you. With everything we have been through this last year and a half, this book has strange new meaning. Now more than ever, we are listening to the wrong things. Step outside and see what the trees are doing.
Will you be picking up Leave The World Behind? What is your favourite dystopian novel? As always, share the reading love.
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