Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2020

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam is an author entirely new to me, but I like his style.   Leave the World Behind is the story of a white American family who rent a luxurious rural retreat  on Long Island, and suddenly find their relaxing week interrupted when the owners descend on them in the wake of a total blackout in New York City.  They were on their way home from a concert elsewhere, and to avoid the chaos, they want to stay.  The blurb describes the dilemma like this:

But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?

This is a sly novel, operating with a wink and a nod to expose the inner workings of race and class in America, and also how a privileged lifestyle impacts on other societies and the global environment.  This excerpt (set before their unwelcome visitors arrive) gives some idea of Alam’s style.  On a hot and windy day with a bit of a chill in the breeze, they’ve found the beach, despite the GPS initially unable to locate itself until it recovered its hold on them and they drove under its protective gaze.  

Amanda struggled to spread the blanket, something she’d found on the internet, block-printed by illiterate Indian villagers.  She placed a bag at each corner to weigh the thing down.  The children shed their layers and bounded off like gazelles.  Rose investigated the detritus washed up on the sand, shells and plastic cups and iridescent balloons that had celebrated proms and sweet sixteens miles away.  Archie knelt in the sand some distance from their encampment, pretending not to stare at the lifeguards, hale girls, sun-lightened locks and red swimsuits.

Amanda had a novel she could barely follow, with a tiresome central metaphor involving birds.  Clay had the kind of book he normally had, a slender and unclassifiable critique of the way we live now, the sort of thing it’s impossible to read near naked in the sun but important to have read, for his work.  (p.27)

So much conveyed about this family in just two short paragraphs!

I don’t like the term ‘political correctness’.  In my younger days we used it ironically and interchangeably with ‘ideologically sound’.  With a dawning awareness of how everything has a symbolic meaning, we asked if the male tie was P.C. (though we never abbreviated the term); if our gardens, dinner party menus, breed of dog, length of skirts or taste in gender-sorted reading materials was P.C.  But P.C. came to have a different kind of political meaning when the Right adopted it as a means of sneering at the idealism of the Left.  John Howard and his even nastier successors started the toxic divisiveness in Australia when they badged any kind of reform as P.C., labelling it not a public good but a phony good that was just an idea that people thought they ought to have because it made them look good, not because it had any merit.  From a term that we played with to mock our own earnestness and the attribution of meaning to things we had never thought about though they were part of our lives, P.C. became a term of scornful abuse.  The Left retaliated (‘white picket fences”, anyone?) but the damage was done.  Centrist politics is dead and the History Wars et al have an enduring legacy.

All of which is germane to this novel is because it reveals the way these two (white) adults, Amanda and Clay, are driven by P.C. in its non-ironic sense, even when they’re on holiday away from any witnesses.  In an amusing way, by showing the reader their inner thoughts as well as the dialogue and actions, the reader sees the private reasonings behind the things they say and do.   They have a car that’s not too new (so it doesn’t signify conspicuous consumption) but not too old (signifying that it befits their social status and their support for the US economy).  They live in a neutral suburb of New York City: not poor, not bohemian, not outrageously wealthy.  Clay reads a book so that he can be seen to have read it; Amanda buys the kind of food they ‘ought to’ eat.  It’s a long shopping list, exposing their excess, made more excessive when her attention to providing what a loving mother ought to provide, taking into account everybody’s needs and preferences, fails.  Because then Clay makes a second trip to the store to buy the cereal she forgot to buy for the boy, and Clay then buys even more stuff and also has a covert cigarette he will pretend later not to have smoked.  Even their sex life is a considered decision: lusty, but not too much and not when the kids might be aware of it!

All this reasoning is made clear, not by the things they say but by their thoughts, which are not consistent with their display.  But on a day of wild weather, just as they are going to bed, they hear a polite knock at the door.  It’s the owners of the rental on their way home to NYC who want to stay in what is, after all, their own property, because they’ve heard that the city has gone into total blackout.  Communications are all down so they don’t know why or how, but they fear chaos.  And they are Black.

Amanda and Clay are both suspicious of this story, but for different reasons.  Clay is annoyed about the disruption to their private holiday.  Amanda doesn’t think that they are the kind of people who would own a luxury retreat like this.  They could be servants, she thinks, not owners.  Ouch!

Leave the World Behind is clever and droll and insightful, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this novel quickly overcame my reluctance to read dystopias at the moment!

Highly recommended.

Author: Rumaan Alam
Title: Leave the World Behind
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
Design by David Mann
ISBN: 9781526633095, pbk., 241 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.  (Bloomsbury sent me a review copy but I don’t read proof copies, so I bought my own when the book was released.)

 


Responses

  1. And just like that, I have reserved a copy at the library :-)

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    • I’m intrigued by home some international titles have made it across the barricades into Australia, and others can even be ordered, even if I’m willing to wait…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I did request a copy of this for review so hopefully it’s on its way to me still.

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    • Hmm, yes, some of these big companies who shall remain nameless, send an email to say that they’ve ‘logged the request’ but they don’t actually tell you whether it’s coming or not. Which makes it hard to schedule the reading so that you don’t get heaps of books all coming in at once. I had eight books arrive last week, after weeks of almost nothing.

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      • I usually get every book I’ve requested from this particular publisher, they’re a favourite of mine, but the books often take a long time. A combination of covid post to an outback location. The post has always been bad out here but atrocious this year.

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        • I haven’t had much trouble with Australian publishers but international is a different story. As you know, I’m an active letter-writer for PEN, two lots in the last month, and the letters are usually going to dictatorships or pseudo democracies in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, former Soviet Republics and South America. At the beginning of the pandemic the lady at the post office always checked where it was going because there were some countries where they were just not accepting mail because they could not deliver it if there were no flights going there at all. Then they had a list of countries where it would normally go airmail but could go sea mail if it wasn’t urgent (which it always is, with prisoners getting tortured) , and then there other places that were more or less normal and they were countries like Britain and France where there was still air traffic, the key criterion being whether there could they get enough passengers for a return flight to cover its costs, and then there needed to be road transport to forward the mail on to countries nearby.
          I sent a card to my niece in London right at the beginning and it took months to get there, but by the time I was sending knitted jackets for babies on the way, the one going to London got there in 10 days and the other going to a country village took nearly a month.
          So I consider myself lucky if I can get my hands on any international authors…

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          • Most definitely! My sister lives in Singapore and we’ve just refrained from posting things to each other this year

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            • That is interesting… I would have thought that Singapore being the hub that it is, would have had heaps of flights…even during Covid.

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              • They have been very locked down though. My sister has been working from home since April. I’ve seen pictures of the airport deserted.

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                • It’s hard everywhere, I know.
                  The jubilation in Melbourne is from those latte lovers who aren’t separated from loved ones by the 25k barrier. I’m not the only one who’s furious about the unfairness of it, because we know perfectly well that this one is not a decision based on science…

                  Liked by 1 person

                • I admit to being confused about the 25k barrier. What’s the reasoning?

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                • The one that’s been announced is that it’s to stop hordes of Melburnians descending on beauty spots. But great swathes of the west and north aren’t exactly famous as beauty spots, so that’s nonsense. The people most affected that I personally know are people who live in the middle suburbs like me, whose children have been able to get into the housing market by buying in the outer suburbs, 1 or 2 k beyond 25k from where their parents live.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • That’s such a disappointment. How long will this be in place?

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                • Good question. Nothing’s going to change at least till November 8th, but then there’s the impact of everybody else moving around Melbourne between now and then, so who knows. I haven’t uttered a word of complaint up till now, but now I’m well fed up.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • Understandable!

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  3. Yes, those two paragraphs tell us so much, as you say. Sounds like a great read.

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    • Have you discovered any great new Sottish writers while you’re there?

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      • I have Lisa. I’m currently reading some short stories by AL Kennedy. I’ve also been brought undone by the glorious poetry of Katrina Porteous. There are some wonderful contemporary writers here.

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        • I’ve read something by AL Kennedy… I’ve always meant to read more:)

          Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘Health & safety’ has undergone the same semantic shift here – now a sneering term of disapproval, often with the phrase ‘gone mad’

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    • Yes. Public discourse has become quite horrid in the last decade or so (and no, I’m not referring to trolls on Twitter).

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