Failing technology and an unknown disaster loom over the events in Rumaan Alam’s smart and terrifying novel.
There’s a stranger at the door. The phone doesn’t work. We’re trapped here. These are some of the many thriller elements that writer Rumaan Alam incorporates into his new novel, Leave the World Behind. Yet despite the familiarity of these tropes, the 43-year-old novelist has written a wholly unique story that feels of the moment for all the darkest reasons.
Leave the World Behind features Clay and Amanda, white parents from Brooklyn who have rented a summer home in an isolated part of Long Island. Their vacation has just begun when the house’s owners, George and Ruth, a wealthy Black couple, arrive unexpectedly in the middle of the night. George and Ruth apologize for interrupting the family’s vacation, but there has been a strange blackout in New York City.
A blackout doesn’t seem like such a big deal, Amanda thinks. She’s not entirely convinced that George and Ruth are who they say they are and wishes they would leave. But the homeowners explain that they sensed they would be safer outside the city. Safer from what, no one can be sure.
“That parental fear is really a primal fear.”
Alam wrote the first draft of Leave the World Behind in only three weeks, during what he describes as a “fevered state.” The novel is a true departure for the author, whose previous books, Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother, stick to the intimate realms of family drama and women’s relationships. They certainly aren’t quite so creepy.
“I wanted to write a book that appeared to be very domestic but actually was talking about the whole world,” Alam explains during a call to his home in Brooklyn. The novel’s inspiration came from a summer vacation taken by Alam with his husband, the photographer David A. Land, and their 8- and 11-year-old boys. George and Ruth’s luxurious second house is based on one the author rented via Airbnb.
Leave the World Behind unfolds over just a few days, and the momentum of the increasing dread is masterful. “I hoped that the book would have the sense of a ticking clock,” Alam says, “that once you’re in the world of the book, time is mirroring your experience of reading it.” He describes that kind of page-turning, stay-up-all-night reading experience as “sticky.”
In this, Alam undoubtedly succeeds. However, the book isn’t trying to be a mystery for the reader to decipher. “There’s a lot the book does not answer, in part because I don’t know the answers to those things,” Alam says. “The book raises 30 questions, and I think it answers, like, 12 of them.” Throughout the novel, snippets of explanations provoke more questions—scarier questions—a few pages later. And amid the mounting horror, the book’s messages about privilege, safety and comfort—as well as gender and race—slowly but deliberately sharpen into focus.
Unsurprisingly, Alam was influenced by Jordan Peele’s 2017 film, Get Out, another tale in which a seemingly benign excursion careens into pure terror. Alam also sought to conjure the “psychological menace” of the film adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on the 1962 Edward Albee play. Other influences include Stephen King’s 1983 horror novel Pet Sematary and Paul Beatty’s 2015 novel, The Sellout.
Much of the dread, confusion and fear in Leave the World Behind comes down to technology: The internet is down, and the radio and TV aren’t working. Alam knew that readers would relate to the experience of having a bad Wi-Fi connection or their cellphone being out of range. But we also trust these devices to eventually reconnect. What if they didn’t? For the characters in Leave the World Behind, frustration at the lack of concrete information soon turns to panic. Speculation replaces fact. The terror lies in the unknown.
These fears will resonate with readers, Alam thinks, due to not only the pandemic but also political malaise. “It’s clear to me that the book is born of a feeling of dread [that] has been in politics, or in the culture, for a couple of years now,” he says.
Like many authors, Alam mined his own fears for his novel, and his concerns come down to a feeling of powerlessness. Writing, he jokes, would be essentially useless toward keeping his children alive during a disaster. “I have nothing to offer my children in the event of a calamity,” he says.
After all, there’s almost nothing scarier in a book than what you fear will happen to your children. “That parental fear is really a primal fear,” Alam says, and Leave the World Behind holds nothing back in exploring how far that fear can go.
Author photo by David A. Land