If you’re already reeling from worry about the pandemic, the climate, the transition of political power, and more: probably best to give Leave the World Behind a pass right now. I suspect I’m not the only reader who subsequently suffered an agonizing nightmare of family disaster. Or the only one who, wide awake, ruminated about adequate supplies of food, water, medicine, gas for the generator. (As if we haven’t been doing that a bit, anyway.)

But if you’re sturdy enough, you’ll find Leave the World Behind elegant, compulsive, frightening, and yet also darkly amusing. Rumaan Alam’s writing luxuriates in the details, veering from a generically omniscient slant to the filter of a specific character:

  • “those brown pants every man over thirty-five wears”
  • “felted green pints of hairy raspberries moldering in their juices”
  • “one of those depressing, low-lying complexes with a grocery, drugstore, dry cleaner, and chain sandwich shop tidily arrayed before a parking lot so large it would never fill up”

But Alam isn’t interested only in surface details; he ruthlessly plumbs the depths of his characters’ motivations and beliefs as well.

The novel opens with a (white) New York City family—professor dad, marketing exec mom, perfect-specimen teenaged son, clever pubescent daughter—traveling to a beautiful Long Island Airbnb for their summer vacation (“they could pantomime ownership for a week”). It’s ideal, until the (black) owners themselves show up. There’s been a power outage on the East Coast, and rather than return to their city apartment, the older couple want to hunker down in their vacation house: “I’m not saying you should leave . . . there’s an in-law suite. We’ll stay downstairs.”

Thus begins an uncomfortable intermingling of these six characters’ destinies. Race is an issue: “This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?” Money, success, trust, responsibility, courage, and parenting are also scrutinized: “Parenthood was never knowing what was going to hurt your kids, but knowing that something, inevitably, would.”

The good news is that the electricity is still, inexplicably, working in the vacation home. The bad news is that satellite systems are down: no GPS, no phone service, no news. No way of knowing, what, exactly, is going on out there. We readers get oblique hints of a person dying in a stalled train, failed backup generators in hospitals, a plane lost, thousands of deer stampeding, a pipeline spilling oil. And then:

A noise, but that didn’t cover it. Noise was an insufficient noun, or maybe noise was always impossible to describe in words . . . This was a noise, yes, but one so loud that it was almost a physical presence, so sudden because of course there was no precedent . . . You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it . . . Something had happened, something was happening . . .

The day before I began reading Leave the World Behind, there was a 3.6 magnitude earthquake offshore in Buzzards Bay, about a dozen miles from where I live. Out for a walk, I didn’t feel the quake but heard it; the boom was overwhelming and went on long enough so I had time to scan the sky for plumes of smoke, long enough so that I could debate the wisdom of continuing my walk or heading home. I continued to walk. A few people stopped me, an older neighbor even called me, to ask if I’d heard it and what could it have been—and eventually we all found out on the web, TV news, etc. When I reached “the noise” in Alam’s book, I could viscerally understand how it might afflict the characters—particularly when there’s no way to find an explanation.

And then, things get worse. But it’s just a story . . . right?