Survival under pressureKarin Lock reviews Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
As everyday life continues to resemble fiction (is it a farce, a disaster movie, or both?), a new ‘normality’ is evolving.
The lockdowns’ rupture of social connectivity has led to an over-dependence on information. Searching for daily updates – on phones, TV, internet – is the new holy grail. But what if there was suddenly no connection, no screen, just a vacuum?
Leave the World Behind is a fascinating deep dive into what makes humans “human”, and whether we will survive as a species. A psychological thriller with a strong moral message, it proclaims inconvenient truths about class, race, and capitalism. As economic systems and social structures collapse, can we learn from the past to see where it all went wrong?
The story opens with Clay, Amanda, and their children Archie and Rose, on a week’s staycation. Leaving their middle-class Brooklyn home in New York, they drive to a remote part of Long Island. The white brick Airbnb retreat is a luxurious house they can only dream of owning. They settle in, enjoying the pool and serene nature.
With no phone reception, they are “not quite lost but not quite not lost.”
This picture postcard is soon disrupted by two unannounced visitors. There has been a blackout in the city, and homeowners George and Ruth seek refuge at their country bolthole. Something dreadful is happening but they are not sure what. Amanda thinks it’s a scam as they “didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house. They might, though, clean it”.
Prejudices aside, the two couples find common ground and settle for the night. The following day, all networks go down. Not having information totally paralyses them as they argue, too scared to leave.
The writer builds tension slowly, delving into each character’s thoughts to explain their behaviour. They react differently under pressure, according to their individual values. Amanda trusts no one; Ruth does not believe in God; Clay is weak and useless in an emergency; and George thinks it’s all linked to the stock market.
As their enforced isolation continues, the characters discuss how money can protect them from the outside world of storms, floods, and wars. This is a common conundrum for survivalists and preppers who build underground bunkers: society needs to survive not just individuals. Ultimately the couples realise they need each other and start to work together.
This is the novel’s argument. People are not connected anymore; they pretend to care to appear “human”; to feel good about themselves. But as Clay says: “Terrible things happened constantly and never prevented you from going out for ice cream”. The author wants us to reconsider our social contract with each other; it is in our mutual interest and preservation to do so.
The philosopher Rousseau said: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”. Humans consent to the chains of governance because they have faith in order holding back the chaos. But the chaos of greed, self-interest and oppression is way out of control and our phones remind us daily how bad things are. Leave the World Behind suggests we turn them off and start creating the life we really want.