In Bong Joon–Ho's masterful class-based horror film Parasite, the real main character is the gleaming and vast house in which a war is waged between those upstairs and those kept down below. This glass box, which reflects the verdant lawns around it, changes before our eyes from a blissful utopia into a house of horrors hiding secrets.
The same is true of Rumaan Alam's new novel 'Leave The World Behind', in so much as the main character is a beautiful house, one "so seductive that it made you forget other people altogether", and again we watch in horror as this scene of domestic bliss morphs into an eerie prison.
The story begins with white Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay taking their teenage children Archie and Rose on a staycation to a charming shaker house in not-quite The Hamptons. Their haven of cold, hard lemons with vodka and hamburgers in airy white buns is interrupted by a knock at the door in the night from a Black couple who claim to be the owners of the house fleeing from New York. Flung together the group must wait for an unknown disaster to arrive, one causing blackouts across cities, networks to crash, a herd of deer to arrive in the garden, an unexplained fever and a horrifying sound which cracks through the air. What follows is an exacting and dread-inducing story of suspicion, prejudice and hysteria, which unfolds like watching a play confined to a claustrophobic and sinister house.
Alam wrote the novel before the pandemic hit, and yet it feels so entwined with the DNA of 2020, capturing the hallucinatory quality which time takes on when stuck inside not knowing what the future holds. Who hasn't in recent months turned to the steady ritual of making pasta while the world seems to crackle and burn outside your window?
There are other themes in the book which have long been brewing, too, like "technology and our strange dependence on it", or "race and the very complicated ways in which race defines people in our country and in our culture", as Alam told The Paris Review. Elsewhere the story gives a fascinating dissection of the white middle class, with Amanda's disbelief that the holiday house she aspires towards is in fact owned by a Black couple underscoring her resentment and suspicion. It's a novel which has a cinematic quality to it, with the story bracing you for a jump scare with every rustling tree or squeaking door, conjuring the same creepiness as Jordan Peele's Us in which a holiday home is the setting for an invasion.
Dystopian fiction has surged this year as people turn to movies like Contagion or books like Albert Camus's The Plague to guide us through this stranger than fiction moment, or indulge in worst case scenarios by playing out impending apocalypse. While Leave The World Behind nudges you towards the end of days, it knows true terror lies in the quiet wait for bad news as you ask again and again: what is going on?
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