Reading Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam during an ongoing pandemic may not seem like a good idea. After all, a story about what looks like a catastrophic event as experienced by two families with no access to the news is a little too on-the-nose considering current events. For those brave enough to crack open its pages, however, what you will find is a mesmerizing story of opposites forced into cooperation and brutal self-reflection that does as much to help you forget reality as it does make you grateful that we are only experiencing a pandemic.
Leave the World Behind is chilling on so many levels – the lack of news, the isolation, the panic. What will strike readers the most, however, is the self-reflection required of each of the characters as they strive to work together all while trying to overcome their inherent biases. After all, the two families are as opposite as can be. Black versus white. Rich versus middle class. Retired versus vacationers. Old versus young. A reliance on wifi and electronics versus those who view such gadgets as unnecessary. Plus one family has the experiences that come with living a full and long life while the other family is still in the throes of puberty, school, and everything else that comes with raising a family.
Not every character is as successful at addressing their inner biases as others. In fact, much of what makes Leave the World Behind so brilliant is the fact that the characters acknowledge their racism and other biases while also understanding that they shouldn’t have those feelings if they want to consider themselves truly enlightened. It makes for some very uncomfortable reading at times, which, I believe, is Mr. Alam’s point. While showing the characters’ weaknesses, he forces readers to confirm their own.
The unknown event in New York is very much a secondary character in its own right, even though we never find out what exactly happened. Mr. Alam draws our attention to certain seemingly random events happening in nature as well as mentioning various long-term effects of that event so that you understand just how catastrophic, almost apocalyptic, it was. As a result, the characters’ state of uncertainty and eventual panic becomes that much more palpable because you understand the gravity of the situation more than they do.
Ultimately, Leave the World Behind is a rather intense apocalyptic novel that fits well into 2020. Its deep dive into the inherent racism and other biases we each internally carry is spot on for this year’s ongoing fight against systemic racism. Plus, its unknown catastrophe is an intriguing alternative to our current, still-relatively-unknown pandemic. Make no mistake, Leave the World Behind is going to be among many a Best of 2020 list.