It is a rare object improved by 2020. And reading Leave the World Behind, a literary thriller with a dystopian twist, during the pre-Christmas days of fresh pandemic restrictions and toilet paper hoarding in Sydney, was unsettling. It is just hard to determine if it is the world inside the pages, or the quietening streets outside, that is responsible for the discomfort.
White middle-class New York couple Clay and Amanda and their teenage children head to a deserted AirBnB summer rental where they can both relish a digital detox with no phone reception, and scramble for wifi and furtive checks of their emails at the grocery store. Barely a day into their trip, a late-night knock at the door introduces them to the property’s owners, well-to-do black couple G.H and Ruth, who bring news of a total electricity outage across New York. Miraculously, the lights and water continue to run inside the house, but the strangers have no way of gleaning information about the disaster. They enter into an uneasy arrangement, and Alam cleverly exposes the fault lines of race, class and privilege separating the two families.
It takes a dozen or so pages to settle into the over-written, choked-on-a-thesaurus style (deodorant is described over three lines as “a chemical sprayed into the thatch … unlike anything in nature, a focus group’s consensus of the masculine ideal”) but the observations do sharpen over time. The same cannot be said for the characterisation – despite moments of clever dialogue (even more impressive: the deducted meaning in the things not spoken) there is little to distinguish one protagonist’s voice from another’s. Occasional reveals of the chaos unfolding in the world are clunky and break the already listless attempt at tension-building. The pages cataloguing pointless ingredients sourced from the supermarket are particularly triggering in the present climate.