Have you ever stepped outside at the start of spring to see new leaves budding and flowers blooming, and felt your sinuses start to seize up with the hint of a sneeze as you breathe in the pollen? Sometimes the sneeze keeps building — you raise a hand to your face and mumble “ahhh, ahhhh,” and sometimes the “choo!” never comes. It’s a frustrating feeling, and one that readers of Rumaan Alam’s third novel, “Leave The World Behind,” will know well.

“Leave the World Behind” made the shortlist for this year’s National Book Award, but I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t win. “Shuggie Bain,” another finalist for the award, won the Booker Prize the very next day, which made me wonder how books are chosen for these honors. Honestly, I wondered how a book that felt like one continuous “ahhhh” with no “choo!” could be considered one of this year’s best novels.

The novel explores contemporary conceptions of domestic life by bringing together a group of unlikely houseguests. New Yorkers Amanda and Clay take their two children, Archie and Rose, away from the city to an AirBnB advertised as “The Ultimate Escape” in a remote area of Long Island. Intrigued by the host’s description, Amanda succumbed to the cliche remark — “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind” — oblivious to its prophecy. 

After one lazy day of voluntary isolation in the Hamptons house, there is a knock at the door. Frozen with panic, “a prey’s instinct,” Amanda and Clay do nothing. It is night time, their children are asleep, and they are alone in a house precisely located in the middle of nowhere. Who, or what, could it be? 

When Amanda and Clay, a white couple, open the door, they face G.H. and Ruth, an older Black couple who owns the house. They are just as shaken as Amanda and Clay, though for different reasons: When driving back to the city from a night out, the two witnessed a blackout: “They’d seen nothing but darkness all the way out, and then, through the trees, the glow of their own house.” 

Amanda and Clay are unsure what to believe: Are they the real owners of the home? Amanda’s thoughts reveal the implicit bias that deter her from thinking so; nonetheless, she receives a single notification from the New York Times app stating that a blackout had struck the East coast. Now what? 

Take One:

It sounds like as good a premise as any, and Alam offers up some insightful commentary on the millennial generation’s idealistic view of the family unit. But it is overshadowed by a devotion to suspense and a disregard for exposition.

Consider this moment: One character catches sight of a deer in the woods. Then she sees another, and another, “There were dozens of deer. Had she been up higher, she’d have understood that there were hundreds, more than a thousand, more than that even.”

That moment seems odd, but innocuous. Should I be scared? Should I be curious? More than anything, I just felt confused. And things get odder, more insidious. Alam becomes addicted to these hints of apocalypse. In the silence of the secluded estate, a noise splits the air — “one so loud that it was almost a physical presence … You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it.”

Alam hints that the noise is some kind of sonic weapon — later, two characters begin to lose their teeth and fall under a mysterious illness. But the reader is never allowed to know exactly what the noise was, left instead with an eerie feeling that persists through the rest of the novel.

The story builds like a sneeze, but the sneeze is never let out — Alam chooses to write a novel in the moment before disaster, a rejection of conventional apocalyptic storytelling. It is a daring test of setting and tone. But daring is not always the same as courageous, and “Leave the World Behind” falls flat as the reader approaches the last few pages, desperate for some final expository turn of phrase which never arrives.

There is a fine line between suspense and confusion. Alam continuously asks himself how long he can keep the reader interested without giving them any real information. The unfortunate answer: about a hundred pages. With its almost pathological need to constantly build tension, the novel distracts the reader from any commentary, any brilliance, it may have to offer.

Last year’s National Book Award winner, “Trust Exercise” by Susan Choi, also had its flaws. But the novel succeeded in its experimental narrative structure, and was lauded for its relevance in the #MeToo movement. “Leave the World Behind,” with its themes of isolation and global uncertainty, has a similar place in its own time — one that I recognize, even if it never quite landed for me.

—Julian Wray, Daily Arts Writer

Take Two:

Straight out of a pandemic nightmare” — Alam’s latest novel worked for me, in part due to its relevance to our current moment.

The lack of an explanation for strange circumstances was the driving force behind the story. As the families appear not to trust each other, the reader simultaneously does not trust the narrator. While the reader loses confidence in the characters, the suspense escalates. 

The events are enhanced by their reflection of the pandemic. For instance, when the homeowners arrive, the adults agree that everyone will stay in the house given the later hour and decide that they’ll “find out more tomorrow,” and head off to bed. It was in this moment, when neither party seeks to learn more about the strange circumstance of the blackout, that I saw an echo of our global crisis. 

Perhaps one of the most frightening things about events like blackouts or pandemics is the unknown that accompanies them, and I admit, this was a troubling reflection. I was annoyed by the characters’ initial decision to not do anything about the blackout, like drive to town to find out more information, or even try to find a stable internet connection, and I was frustrated with the bothersome reminder that even when people do have access to information in uncertain times (such as the knowledge that wearing masks can reduce the spread of a deadly virus), people may still choose not to do anything. 

Everything grows stranger in the morning: Amanda has an illegible notification on her phone, the two families awkwardly attempt to make small talk while avoiding the urgent lurking discussion and one character confronts an inestimable herd of deer standing in the forest behind the house. 

While never supplying specifics on the apocalyptic situation (zombies, aliens, a meteor), Alam was able to terrify me with his unsettling details: Petrifying noises and unfathomable occurrences threaten the external facade of safety, yet it is the internal destruction that is most harrowing to witness — how the panic dismantles logical reasoning, how anxiety of the unknown weakens stability, how mysterious infections impair bodily functions. 

Again, I was frightened by the reality of this situation. For some, this novel may be too on the nose for our current moment to be enjoyable. The suspense might be frustrating instead of chilling, the lack of explanation confusing instead of unsettling. To reiterate Julian’s point: Alam walks a thin line here. But was the combination of these conflicting feelings Alam’s intent? To simultaneously frighten and confuse us with absurdity? 

I think the answer depends on the reader — and whatever reality of theirs is at stake once they pick up the novel.

—Lilly Pearce, Daily Arts Writer

Daily Arts Writers Lilly Pearce and Julian Wray can be reached at pearcel@umich.edu and jwray@umich.edu.

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