When Dystopia Meets Mystery: Background information when reading Leave the World Behind

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Leave the World Behind

by Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam X
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2020, 256 pages
    Nov 2021, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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About this Book

When Dystopia Meets Mystery

This article relates to Leave the World Behind

Print Review

With his novel Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam explores how a group of isolated strangers react to an unspecified threat that is sweeping across New York. By hinting at the disaster's cause and effect, but depriving both his characters and his readers of concrete answers, he is able to tap into our inherent fear of the unknown.

Though wholly original in tone and execution, the book is not the first to dip into the dystopian genre without providing wider context, using an apocalyptic setup as a springboard to explore the human response to fear itself. Here are a few other novels that take this same core notion in entirely different but equally fascinating directions.

I Who Have Never Known Men coverI Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman
First published in the author's native Belgium in 1995 and translated into English by Ros Schwartz in 1997, this spare yet haunting novel asks big questions about the power of friendship, the value of knowledge and the endurance of humanity. We follow a group of 40 women who have spent years held prisoner in an underground facility with no idea why. On a stroke of luck, they finally escape, but the world they find aboveground is completely barren, and they are left to try to salvage a sense of community among themselves.

Annihilation coverAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Chilling yet absorbing, Annihilation (2014) chronicles the twelfth expedition into Area X, a mysterious disaster zone that has been sealed off for decades. With no one having survived the previous missions, it's clear that something strange and deadly lurks within. The latest crew, made up of four women, is tasked with mapping the area, recording their findings and solving the mysteries behind Area X once and for all. But the horrors they encounter push their minds and bodies beyond their limits, and VanderMeer employs a truly otherworldly atmosphere and haunting imagery that are guaranteed to linger with the reader.

The Dreamers coverThe Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
As gripping as it is contemplative, The Dreamers (2019) is set in a small U.S. college town that is put into quarantine after the outbreak of a strange virus that plunges the afflicted into a coma. Sufferers' brains show unusually high levels of activity, and though they can be kept alive intravenously, the epidemic spreads at such a rate it becomes increasingly difficult for the remaining medical staff to meet their needs before they too succumb to the sickness. Weaving together various perspectives, Walker creates a satisfying narrative arc without handing readers all the answers, using her characters' predicament to comment on the nature of time and the unknowable complexity of the human mind.

The Wall coverThe Wall by John Lanchester
Devastated by an event referred to only as the Change, an island nation employs Defenders to patrol the vast wall that surrounds the entire coastline, designed to keep the Others out. Lanchester keeps details vague enough that the narrative and its themes can be applied to many of our current-day issues; The Wall (2019) is rich with echoes of the controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall, the climate disaster, Brexit division and the global refugee crisis. Forgoing sentimentality of any kind, the author is unflinching in his critique of what he sees as society's failings.

Bird Box coverBird Box by Josh Malerman
Utilizing sensory deprivation to great effect, Bird Box (2014) focuses specifically on our fear of what we cannot see, and the difficult moral decisions that must be made if we wish to survive in extreme circumstances. The plot follows Malorie as she attempts to keep her children safe in a world haunted by an unknown presence, the mere sight of which drives victims to a murderous rage. Full of standout set pieces, the pace and atmosphere will leave you breathless.

Filed under Reading Lists

This "beyond the book article" relates to Leave the World Behind. It originally ran in October 2020 and has been updated for the November 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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