Plenty of literary works deal with uncomfortable themes such as race, class, and the fragility of societal structures. But what would happen if those same themes were explored in the context of a larger crisis looming over everyone involved? Rumaan Alam explored this in his 2020 novel ‘Leave the World Behind.’ A family goes on a trip to a picturesque cabin, only for their vacation to turn into a stuff of nightmares following an unexplained global catastrophe. In the aftermath of the events, the characters are faced with the uncomfortable notion that the civilization is falling apart and everything they thought they knew no longer feels true. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to check the book out, we’ve got you covered. Let’s see what it’s all about.
The story follows Amanda & Clay, an upper-class family with little care in the world
Initially, we follow Amanda & Clay and their young kids, Archie, a 15-year-old boy, and Rose, a 13-year-old girl with a penchant for adventure. The family is on a vacation trip, driving towards a rented house in a remote area. The area is pretty isolated, which Amanda mentions as she contacts her coworkers, warning them of poor reception.
The family dynamics and individual quirks are revealed, such as Clay’s casual attitude toward Amanda’s work and their different approaches to eating habits. The journey takes them through various landscapes, eventually arriving at the rented house.
Someone knocks at the door
After a day at the beach, the family returns to their vacation home. Amanda and Clay are joined by their children, Archie and Rose, for the evening activities. The atmosphere is relaxed as they unwind from the day’s activities. Their relaxing evening is interrupted by a knock on the door. The strangers express apologies for startling the family and seek permission to enter. Amanda, holding a cordless telephone, considers calling for help. She has a trigger-happy response to the unexpected visitors. The strangers’ motives remain unclear, but they request permission to enter the house.
There has been a blackout, and the mysterious couple needs somewhere to stay
The unnamed visitors are revealed to be (G.H.) George and Ruth, an older black couple, explain that they are the owners of the house and they were caught in the middle of the blackout and want to stay in the house until the situation calms down a bit. G.H. proposes they stay for the night, offering a refund of fifty percent of the rental cost. Amanda, skeptical and protective, questions their motives and legitimacy. A discussion ensues, revealing the tension between the couples.
G.H. and Ruth emphasize the emergency broadcast system’s warnings, expressing concern about the safety of venturing into the city. Amanda conflicted about the strangers staying, asserts their right to the rented property.
The situation intensifies when G.H. offers a thousand dollars upfront as a gesture of gratitude. The conversation shifts to suspicion, with Amanda speculating about potential scams or hidden motives. The fear of strangers in their midst, especially with children in the house, escalates.
Clay, more trusting and empathetic, attempts to calm Amanda and suggests allowing the strangers to stay for the night. Amanda remains uneasy, questioning the authenticity of the emergency situation and the strangers’ identity. As the night unfolds, Amanda’s anxiety deepens, fueled by her inability to recall where she has seen G.H. before. Clay, grappling with doubts, believes in the strangers’ vulnerability.
The crisis seems to be more severe than it initially appeared
Amanda & Clay eventually agreed to let the older couple stay at the house for the night. The mysterious event has plunged New York City into darkness, with power outages spreading across the city. There’s speculation about the cause—there is a mention of a guy blowing up a suitcase in Times Square and similar incidents at power plants.
Amidst the uncertainty, Amanda and Clay join G.H. and Ruth for a meal during the blackout, discussing various blackout experiences, including Hurricane Sandy and the 2003 blackout. As they eat, the conversation veers into fears about threats like North Koreans, bombs, and missiles.
G. H., who seems to have some financial expertise, mentions a feeling that something is coming, and Ruth expresses her anxieties about the fragility of societal order.
They retreat to the basement for safety, equipped with supplies for an extended stay. The power outage prompts reflections on life, memories, and future uncertainties. G. H. tries to reassure Ruth, emphasizing safety in their current location.
G.H. reveals more about himself
Following a hard attempt at sleep, Ruth wakes up with lucid eyes and a sudden memory. She is desperate for her daughter, Maya, and has various images of Maya at different stages of life in her mind. Ruth checks the green light on the cable box to confirm that the power is still on, but her cell phone doesn’t seem to work. Ruth goes to the kitchen and picks up the telephone that Danny, the contractor, suggested installing.
There’s a sense of tension between G. H. and Danny, with G. H. falling under Danny’s charm. Ruth tries to call Maya but doesn’t get through. The scene shifts to the living room, where a couple, Amanda and Clay, are present. Ruth and Amanda discussed the phone outage and the possibility of a hurricane causing it.
Amanda mentions alerts on her phone about a blackout and a hurricane. They speculate about the situation and consider seeking information from neighbors. Ruth and Amanda talk about their backgrounds and professions, establishing a connection. G. H. joins them, and they discuss the news, the storm, and a possible visit to Danny’s.
The narrative transitions to Rose, the daughter, who senses a change in the day. She notices the unusual heat and quietness. In the kitchen, her father, Clay, talks to a man named Mr. Washington, whom Rose finds intriguing. Her father tells her she can swim, and she finds her mother. Ruth expresses fear and concern for Maya and reminisces about a trip to Italy.
G. H. reveals he manages money and emphasizes the importance of information in his line of work. They discuss the situation, terrorism, and the uncertainty of the future. Clay drives into town to gather more information, and G. H. suggests visiting his contractor friend.
Clay is away exploring the town, trying to make sense of the place
While Clay is away, Amanda shares a meal with G.H. and Ruth by the pool. As they share a meal and wine by the pool, Amanda praises Ruth’s polite children, and they discuss Maya, G. H.’s daughter, who runs a Montessori school. The conversation turns to the passage of time and the fleeting nature of life. Amanda reflects on the joy of being a grandparent and the spoiling that comes with it.
Meanwhile, the children, Archie and Rose, become bored and decide to explore the nearby woods. They discover an old shed and contemplate its purpose. Archie playfully suggests it might be a hiding place for someone who watches the house, causing Rose to feel uneasy. They eventually venture deeper into the woods. Archie gets bitten by a tick, which is about to complicate this situation even more. Clay meets a woman in town but refuses to help her because he can’t understand her speaking Spanish.
Rose and Archie are separated from their mother as another mystery unfolds
Rose and Archie explore in the woods, feeling nature’s mysterious presence. Rose imagines being watched, and the trees, alive and majestic, seem to communicate with each other.
The story shifts back to where Ruth, Amanda, and G. H. discuss mundane activities. Meanwhile, barefoot and carefree children discover a house in the woods. There is a sudden and powerful noise that disrupts the tranquility. Amanda and G. H. try to comprehend the source of the noise. As the noise subsides, Amanda anxiously searches for her children, who seem to have vanished in the aftermath. The only thing that can be heard is the deer screaming.
What is the source of the noise?
The noise tore through the air, disrupting the tranquil day. G.H., Amanda, and Ruth, who had sought refuge in a quiet house, were now confronted by an unsettling event. G.H., though cautious, couldn’t fully embrace the idea that it wasn’t thunder. Having found her children safe but shaken from the noise, Amanda clutched Rose’s hand tightly. The children, though dirty and disheveled, seemed physically unharmed.
Amanda’s instinct had led her to the children in the woods, coincidentally intersecting with their escape route. The noise had sent them running, affecting everyone and everything in its wake. The noise startled animals, shattered windows, and left a lingering hum like persistent insects. Amanda, Rose, and Archie emerged from the woods, finding an unfamiliar yet welcoming reunion with Ruth and G.H.
Amidst the chaos, Amanda tended to Rose’s minor wounds, the ritual of care providing a sense of comfort. Ruth, trying to help in her own way, urged Archie to drink water while noting the eerie aftermath of the noise.
The family, now together, grappled with the mystery of the noise. Was it a bomb, a plane crash, or a sonic boom? Amanda, attempting to reconstruct the event, questioned the absence of air traffic. Ruth noticed the lack of planes and helicopters, wondering if it meant something significant.
As the family speculated on the cause of the noise, tensions rose. Amanda, in distress, questioned their safety and the absence of information. Ruth suggested waiting for Clay while G.H. reassured them that they were prepared and safe in their home.
Frustrated by the uncertainty and lack of communication, Amanda cried out for action. Should they drive into town, look for Clay, fill the bathtubs, and gather supplies?
The family grappled with the possibility of an attack, and Amanda’s fear escalated as she imagined the worst for Clay.
The discussion spiraled into speculations about the noise—was it a nuclear incident, a missile, or an act of terrorism? Ruth, attempting to bring some order, suggested waiting to see what they needed to do next.
Amanda, angered and desperate for information, criticized their lack of connectivity and knowledge. The once-safe house now felt uncertain and unfamiliar.
Clay questions his entire existence
Clay experiences a moment of existential crisis triggered by an indescribable noise. The noise shatters his sense of masculine responsibility and makes him question his desire to protect. Confused and frustrated, he drives away but encounters an unexplainable phenomenon in the sky. The noise disappears, and he returns home to his family, relieved but still haunted by fear.
Clay’s attempt to rationalize the situation reveals a world in turmoil, referencing rising seas, Greenland, a troubled political landscape, and natural disasters. Clay is greeted by his family, who seem to have rehearsed their responses. His wife, Amanda, is both relieved and angry at his absence. Clay, feeling shame and fear, lies about what he’s seen in the sky and lies about what he encountered in town.
Archie falls sick
Amand decided to do something concrete and started filling the bathtubs with water. As they discuss the situation, questions arise about the mysterious noise they heard earlier. The lack of thunder or lightning adds to the eerie atmosphere, leaving them perplexed and uneasy. The characters grapple with the decision of whether to stay put or return to the city for safety. Clay returns after filling the tubs, and the discussion shifts to the possibility of going home or waiting to see how the situation unfolds. Amanda seeks advice from G. H. They decide to stay for the night, with plans to go to town the next day to assess the situation.
The story takes a turn when Archie, Amanda’s son, falls ill, vomiting unexpectedly. Ruth assists and suggests checking Archie’s temperature. He is burning up.
Where did the flamingos come from?
Archie’s fever is not getting any better, and Clay and Amanda decide that they need to seek the doctor regarding his state as soon as possible. In the midst of panic, they both start craving some normalcy and familiarity and have sex. Come the morning, they are once again shocked to see a flock (flamboyance, pardon me) of flamingos gathering at their pool and their yard. No one has an explanation for this as the situation turns more bizarre with each passing second.
G. H. discovers an unexpected assortment of food in his fridge, and the atmosphere is tense as the characters discuss the strange sighting of flamingos in New York. The group grapples with the surreal situation, and there’s a mix of confusion, disbelief, and attempts to find a logical explanation. As they engage in conversation, they touch on various topics, from the nature of flamingos to the possibility of a private zoo owned by rich individuals. Amanda becomes increasingly concerned about her son Archie’s health. Eventually, to calm themselves, they get drunk.
Archie’s health is getting more serious as Rose disappears
Amanda wakes up to the aftermath of a heavy night of drinking. They grapple with intense hangovers when they realize Rose, Amanda’s daughter, is missing. As panic sets in, they search the house and surrounding areas. Archie experiences a strange phenomenon as he discovers his teeth falling out. The family, joined by the Washingtons, takes Archie to the hospital. However, the situation becomes more complicated as they struggle to find Rose. Archie refuses to go to the hospital, claiming he is absolutely fine, but he starts seizing uncontrollably. G.H. and Clay decide that he must go to the hospital immediately, but Ruth is desperate and doesn’t want to let her husband go.
G.H. promises that they will be back soon and that she and Amanda should focus on fidning Rose. Ruth thinks about the fact that they are incredibly rich, and yet they cannot do anything with this money right now.
Clay and G.H. decide to make a detour to Danny’s place
Clay remarks how useless he is as he fails to produce a good map leading to a hospital. G.H. tries to comfort him but fails. Clay feels useless, and for the first time, he mentions what he truly came across while exploring the town the other day. Clay mentions how he ran into a Spanish-speaking lady but didn’t help her because he couldn’t understand her. He thinks that what’s happening with Archie and Rose is karma for him refusing to help her due to language barriers.
G.H. proposes that instead of going straight to the hospital, they visit his friend and contractor, Danny, who always has a solution for everything.
They visit Danny, but he doesn’t see G.H. as a friend but rather as someone he has done some work for in the past. G.H. swore that Danny would have a solution for everything, but on the contrary, Danny wants them gone, and he has no idea what’s going on, at least no more than they do. He mentions a migration of deer he encountered and how unnatural it seemed. He gives them advice to return home.
Clay pleads with Danny, mentioning that Archie is sick and his daughter is missing, but Danny doesn’t care. He urges them to leave him and his family. G.H. talks Danny into abandoning the original plan of taking Archie to the hospital, and Archie agrees, telling them he is okay. Back at home, Amanda and Rurth are not progressing in finding Rose.
Rose returns to the cabin and finds the supplies
While Amanda and Ruth are looking for Rose, she slowly returns to the woods, where she and Archie discovered that cabin the first day. She ran into some deer and wondered what their family would look like in the future, considering that one of them was albino. She enters the house and finds it abandoned, the cabin’s answers never returning.
She feels guilty about not leaving any kind of message for her parents but decides that the supplies she uncovered will make up for it. Elsewhere, states of emergency have been declared, and the U.S. President is stowed away in a bunker. The world is falling apart. Levees have broken, resulting in floods. Some people worry about food. Rose decides to grab what she can and return to the house.
‘Leave the World Behind’ Ending explained: What really went down?
If you made it this far, you’re probably wondering who leaves the book on a cliffhanger like that. And it’s true. We don’t get the proper resolution to any of the stories, and some mysteries are over-analyzed with no cause to back them up. But what we did get a proper resolution for in this book is the fact that every single person approached the problem differently. G.H. relied too much on his money. He saw opportunities and connections when, in reality, he had none. Ruth relied too much on George, while Clay was depicted as useless all around, making too many assumptions based on class, just like Amanda.
The book goes deep into the fragility of social structures and race and how faced with fear and uncertainty, all our preconceived notions about it go out of the window. We also learn about the vulnerable state of our civilization and how the foundations we’ve built over the years no longer hold when faced with an event on such a large scale.
We don’t know what caused the blackout, the noise, and plenty of other unexplained phenomena, but we do know that it changed society at its roots. In the middle of it, we discovered the familial bonds of human vulnerability, questioning what it means to be brave and resourceful. None of the characters really shone in this situation because they held so much to their identity and money that served them well while everything was good, but it proves to be of little importance in catastrophe.
The novel also shows what isolation does in a crisis. It shows us the ugly underbelly of privilege, but most of all, it ends on unsure terms and with an ambiguous tone.
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