Reading Leave the World Behind, I was reminded of the world’s shortest story:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
It’s a six-word story that tells you everything you need to know and how to feel without going into detail. It’s been attributed to Ernest Hemmingway; apparently someone bet him he couldn’t write the world’s shortest story, and this is what he came up with. Not entirely sure if that’s true, there’s evidence of the story’s origin that pre-dates Hemmingway but that’s not what is important here.
Leave the World Behind is masterclass in what is left unsaid and my God does it leave you feeling uneasy.
Amanda, Clay and their two kids Archie and Rose are on holiday in a remote part of Long Island. They’re playing make believe that the beautiful house they’re staying in is theirs, enjoying the high life and getting away from it all.
Late one night, the actual owners of the house, Ruth and GH turn up. They’re in a panic, talking of sudden power outage across New York, they’re here to seek refuge in their country escape pad.
Amanda and Clay have to decide whether to trust this couple and believe what they’re saying. Their mobile phones aren’t working, the television is down, they have no way of knowing what is going on.
It looks at issues of race, class and family and how we act in times of crisis. What it’s like when there’s on unseen threat outside.
I know what you’re thinking; “unseen threat outside? How very 2020”, that wasn’t lost on me either. Written pre-pandemic, there will be feelings in this novel that resonate, the feelings of helplessness, not knowing when its going to bloody end and having no answers for what is happening in the world – sounds a bit familiar.
When Ruth and GH land on the doorstep late at night, there’s distrust between them and the family. Amanda’s racism comes screaming to the forefront, Ruth and GH are black, she doesn’t think they “look like the kind of people who would own a house like this”, Ruth and GH are wary of the people in their house and would like them to leave. Soon all that is forgotten as they realise all they have is each other and what’s happening outside is a much bigger crisis.
The writing is tight and adds to the readers sense of unease. We’re in each of the characters heads throughout, moving from one point of view to another. It can, in the early parts, feel a little confusing as we swap from Amanda to Clay to Ruth to GH from sentence to sentence, but it enforces the feeling of confusion. Slowly, an omniscient narrator is introduced giving hints about catastrophic events happening across the US, there’s little nods towards disaster that are peppered with individual stories of tragedy; yet, we’re never actually told what is happening, we’re just left with a feeling that this is huge, potentially devastating and there is nothing the characters and those involved could do about it.
It forces the reader to look at a world where we have no means of communicating. There is no information, there is no news and no social media. I used to think I’d be quite happy to be completely off grid; I now know that is bullshit – don’t get me wrong there are times I despise 24-hour communication, but the pros outweigh the cons. I mean could you imagine getting through the past year without a mobile phone or any news? As much as I hate Zoom and Facetime, I’m relieved I’ve been able to use it. There’s been times when I want to turn the news off for a week (and I’m a journalist) but at least the choice has been mine, the information has been there if I want to access it.
It taps into that feeling of the only place that is safe is to be indoors and how we cope with that (badly in my experience) and how sometimes we’re left with no choice but to trust strangers and how at times we need the kindness of strangers.
If you’re someone who likes a book tied up in a nice bow at the end, this isn’t for you. I still haven’t decided if I’m happy with how it ended or not.
I know it kept me gripped, I know it made me feel tense – Alam’s writing left me with a growing sense of life never being the same again. Would I have felt as uneasy reading this had the pandemic not been in town? I guess I don’t know for sure.
It’s a clever thriller that will leave you confused and on edge, if you’re looking for an escape from Covid I wouldn’t recommend, there were extremes and moods that I could spot in each of the characters; without knowing it, Alam was able to capture some of the feelings of what it’s like to live through a pandemic.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm