Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam's Leave The World Behind isn't so much a dystopian novel as a novel that hints of a dystopian world to come. It begins with a New York family - husband, wife, boy and girl - driving to a remote house they're renting for their summer holiday on Long Island. They arrive, they settle in, they swim, and apart from the terrible phone reception and the lack of broadband, it's all good. But then the owners of the house, a polite, dignified older couple, arrive. New York has suffered a city-wide power cut, so they've come to stay.

At first, Amanda and Clay are suspicious, and despite their supposed liberal values, it's the fact that the owners are black that unseats them (the house, Amanda thinks, 'doesn't seem like the sort of house where black people lived', although she admits to herself that even she doesn't really know what she means by that) but they don't have much option but to let them in - not least because Amanda and Clay don't want to appear racist by turning away a black couple they might have turned away if they'd been white. It's exactly, Amanda thinks ruefully, the sort of thing 'a canny black criminal would take advantage of'. 

Once Ruth and George 'GH' Washington have settled themselves in, it becomes apparent that along with the WiFi, the TV signal has gone too. And when there's  briefly a phone signal, the only news alerts are scrambled gibberish. When Clay attempts to drive to the nearest town to find out more, he gets mysteriously lost and encounters a woman - a uniformed domestic worker - distraught and sobbing by the road. But she can't express herself in English and Clay is too awkward to attempt even what little Spanish he knows. 

There's something profoundly unsettling about this book, which reads like a literary hybrid of Paul Tremblay's The Cabin In The Woods, Cormac McCarthy's The Road and a Jordan Peele film. It's a book in which the characters know nothing and the narrator knows everything, but the most chilling part is that the narrator keeps most of what they know to themselves. Occasionally, as the three generations of affluent, middle-class New Yorkers make polite conversation around the pool, admire the granite worktops and sip cocktails in the hot tub, the narrator will casually tell us of something that's happening elsewhere - the slow deaths of those who are stranded in permanently halted subway trains or elevators, for example. The manipulative omniscience of the narrator makes the dithering indecision and denial of the two families, nibbling on artisan brie while Rome burns, all the more stressful for the reader. We know more than the characters - but only slightly, and which means what we do we know is simply enough to make us even more uneasy than they are.

This feeling is somehow heightened by Alam's decision to tell the story from the point of view of all the characters - Amanda, Clay, Ruth, GH, and the two teenagers, Archie and Rose - in turn. That constant switching of a close third person narrative is something we don't see often in fiction, and there's something indefinably disorientating about it. It works perfectly for this novel. 

Alam also uses the natural world to a similarly unnerving effect. Wildlife appears in intimidatingly large numbers, or in entirely the wrong environment. When Rose suddenly realises she's being watched by hundreds of silent deer, she's both captivated and scared. Flamingos, so beautiful in their proper environment, become ominously out-of-place and confusing in the woods of Long Island.

Part satire, part apocalyptic warning, Leave The World Behind is still occupying an awful lot of my thoughts several days after I finished it. However, it asks a lot of questions of us and gives us very few answers so if neat plot resolution is your thing, it's a book that might not be for you. As the atmosphere becomes increasingly oppressive and doom-laden as the book draws to its ambiguous conclusion, there's a strong sense that what's unfolding is not much an end as a beginning. The beginning of what, however, is worryingly unclear.