Something bad has happened, but what? Such is the concept that propels Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam’s apocalyptic novel about two families converging at a rental home in the Hamptons amid a mysterious catastrophic event.
Many compelling works – Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs come to mind – have successfully used this strategy. Characters are confined to a remote location, where they speculate and gradually learn about what has happened in the larger world.
This work, however, suffers from two major problems. First, the characters and their behaviors/conflicts are not compelling enough to keep the reader engaged. It takes far too long to get to the inciting incident (i.e., the knock on the door). Vacationers Amanda and Clay and their two nondescript children are surprised when G.H. and Ruth Washington, owners of the property, show up amid what they believe could be a disaster.
My second gripe against this book is that Alam goes on too many tangents and whips up a whirlwind of irrelevant details. An encountered object, for instance, stops the novel’s progress and allows a character to reflect on a memory. I often found myself thinking, Wait. Why are you stopping here? Don’t tell me about that. This is most apparent at the beginning, where the author gets mired in the mediocrity of middle-aged parenthood. I don’t need a list of what Amanda’s buying at the grocery store.
The omniscient narration compounds the problem. Although this strategy enables Alam to slip in hints about what’s happening beyond the Hamptons, dipping into each character’s head slows the progress. Moreover, the narrator tends to break into the story and state, in effect, what the character didn’t know was that [fill in the blank] was happening or what was happening was much worse than they were imagining.
Nevertheless, some details, such as changes in characters’ bodies or the local wildlife, are intriguing. The novel does get better and the tension escalates near the end, but it’s not enough to recommend this one.—Douglas J. Ogurek**