This is the fourth book I’m getting to on the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 longlist! In all honesty, this is one of the books on the longlist that was lowest on my “interested in reading” list. I had “meh” feelings about the synopsis and even though the reviews I’ve seen have all been quite glowing, I just wasn’t sure it was for me. I may, in fact, not have picked it up if it hadn’t been on this list. But here we are and, as a small spoiler for the rest of the review, I ended up being really glad I read it! Also, thanks to Libro.fm for the ALC from a month or so ago – having the audio version really pushed to pick it up sooner (plus, for anyone else considering the audio, the narrator did a great job.)
Amanda and Clay, along with their children Archie and Rose, are heading to a remote AirBnB in the upstate/out of the city area of New York for a summer vacation getaway. Leave the World Behind follows them as they set out on the drive to the home and over the start of their vacation. A few days in though, the home’s owners, an older Black couple named G.H. and Ruth, show up unexpectedly, “escaping” the city after a blackout hit. The two families, strangers to each other, spend the next days in a forced, discomfited, proximity learning about each other and trying to deal with the unknown and fear in their own disparate ways, each trying to decide what the safest option is for their own family.
Yea so even I couldn’t make that synopsis sound like a book I would really want to pick up. I don’t think it’s the fault of the blurb writers or marketers or anything…it just sounds like a novel with so much potential to fall flat. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk it. So, bearing in mind those reasonably low expectations…I was so freaking impressed with this novel. The writing was biting and intelligent from the very first page. Alam’s ability to find the little moments, the quick inner thoughts that deeply and concisely provide insight into the nature of our characters specifically and, then, human nature in a greater sense is…spectacular. Each and every observation made has a meaningful bent to it. Not a single line or thought or event is superfluous. In particular, I loved the small differences in perception – in what is said/done versus what is thought/meant – that Alam communicates with the short asides(?) inserted after most movement/dialogue. We get to see what each character’s internal truth is, different from what they chose to share externally, and it’s such a smart look at the reality of human conversation and interaction. I don’t think I am communicating it really well; you may have to read the book to really understand, but I tried.
The other highlight of the novel was the atmospheric tension. Even from the opening chapters, there is a sense of uneasiness, of foreboding, even though nothing has yet gone wrong and there’s really no indication that it ever will. This is masterfully built throughout the book with small “odd” moments or sightings that are unexplainable (and thus, kind of terrifying, especially when considered together), but individually are nothing particularly of note. And even when these moments of oddness grow in proportion (strange animal sightings, sounds, teeth issues – which are a big no item for me and I cringed heavily and tried not to listen through that), many are still nothing that should inspire such panic under “normal” circumstances. Plus, the well-placed short interjections with hints at what’s happening in the wider world that these families aren’t aware of at all…it puts their fear into a greater perspective for the reader, making it seem more justified than it should, considering what little they actually know, which simultaneously throws the isolation they’re in into sharper relief. Alam’s skill in writing the build-up of fear, the way not knowing plays into that, the interactions of these two families who are total strangers but now have no one but each other to lean on…it’s all fantastic.
I know there is a bit of a debate about the ending, some love/hate reactions and I feel like I missed something. I didn’t love or hate it, I just felt like it fit. How else would things have gone? Much more would have turned it truly post-apocalyptic, which isn’t actually what this novel was (at least in my opinion). And more importantly, for me, the goal I felt in the writing was for the reader to question and examine how we might react in unknown circumstances like this. Which I did. For sure. Also, I’m now over here trying to figure out if I’d rather be in the middle of something worse but know what’s going on (in front of your face terror) OR be that isolated with no information but be arguably physically safer (the terror in the unknown) – and I love a book that makes me consider/confront things I’ve never thought about before.
Overall, this is such an eerie, chilling, page-turner…which is fascinating because it’s also much more character/development driven than plot driven. What an impressive literary combination. Alam’s sharp explorations of humanity and human nature, the assumptions we make about others and how we act on that, the decisions we make when truly faced with an unthinkable situation (versus those projections we make about how we think we’d act), and the things that really matter, that we turn to for comfort when it comes down to it, are all meticulously exemplified scarily prescient.
A few short passages I marked as I read, which I always like to share:
“The key to success was having parents who had succeeded.”
“The relief of light and its safety.”
“That parochial one-upmanship New Yorkers think their own, special remit, but everyone is possessive of the places they inhabit.”
“There was no real structure to prevent chaos. There was only a collective faith in order.”
“The only things people ever wanted were food and home.”
“No one could plead ignorance that was not willful.”
“You told yourself you’d be attuned to a Holocaust unfolding a world away, but you weren’t. It was immaterial, thanks to distance. People weren’t that connected to one another. Terrible things happened constantly and never prevented you from going out for ice cream or celebrating birthdays or going to the movies or paying taxes or fucking your wife or worrying about the mortgage.”
“However much had happened, so much more would happen.”
“If they didn’t know how it would end […] well, wasn’t that true of every day?”