One year ago today was my last day working in the office. At the time, I was making a few simple, small adjustments to prepare for a lockdown or supply chain disruptions if the pandemic got suddenly. This mostly meant acquiring a few extras of various non-perishable items whenever I went shopping and then storing them in a box in the closet so I wouldn’t use them up right away. So an extra box of pasta, a jar of sauce even though I prefer homemade, some canned fruit in case fresh became hard to get, extra cans of tuna, and of course an extra pack of toilet paper. The idea was merely to have enough to get by for a month or so, should the need arise.
Now, a year later, I’ve gradually made my way through most of my little stockpile. Last I checked I had a few cans of soup and tuna left. But this book by Rumaan Alam gave me a desire to built in back up. Because you just never know.
Leave the World Behind begins with a family of four (parents Amanda and Clay and teenage kids Archie and Rose) leaving Brooklyn to spend a week on vacation at a rented house in Long Island. It’s far enough out that cell phone signals are unreliable, but there’s a pool and a hot tub and the beach is a reasonable drive away. All is well until the end of their first full day at the house, when the owners, a older Black couple named G.H. and Ruth, show up. There’s a blackout in the city, and they came here seeking safety instead of trying to make the 14-story climb to the Upper East Side apartment.
From here on, the characters are suspended in a sort of limbo, knowing something is wrong “out there” but unable to do much about it. The electricity continues to work, but the satellite TV stations, and Amanda is able to see a couple of news alerts about the blackout on her phone, but she can’t access more than the headlines. And those stop after one final headline that’s just a bunch of gobbledygook. Clay tries to go to town for news, but without a GPS signal, he immediately gets lost. And there are no near neighbors. And. It. Is. Terrifying.
To be clear, Alam does not write this as a horror novel. I brought the horror myself, although the situation would be scary to most readers, I think. But what’s interesting is that, while Alam does have the characters mull over what’s happening, he also pays a lot of attention to the little things they do to pass the time. Making a bowl of pasta gets as much narrative weight as the mysterious herd of deer that Rose spots in the yard. We readers get hints about the outside world from the omniscient narrator, although we never quite get the full explanation. It is bad, though, apocalyptically so.
Eventually, matters do get worse. But even then, the characters try to find some way to hold on to normalcy. Amanda and Clay debate going home, imagining finishing their time off with a staycation, dining at favorite local restaurants. It doesn’t seem possible to them that restaurants are closed and hospitals inaccessible. Even the character with the most awareness that everything has changed is, at the end, trying to create a new version of normal as they understand it. Maybe that’s what most people try to do in a crisis — revert to what feels normal, even if regular normal is out of reach.