The sense of dread the reader experiences starts with the first sentence of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.
“Well, the sun was shining. They felt that boded well . . . ” In fact, it does not.
Alam uses a few methods to keep the reader on edge. He intersperses somewhat alarming but sketchy details haphazardly, and doesn’t always return to explain. For instance, the narrator tells the reader one of the characters always has his epi-pen within reach, then moves on, leaving the reader to wonder: Why is it mentioned? How will it fit into the story? This keeps the reader filled with antsy anticipation.
Then there are the layers of possible menace facing the characters. The first is suspicion based on race. But are there larger threats facing them all as a group? Should they unite and put aside their differences? Alam reveals these details throughout the novel in a slow, tantalizing thread.
And finally, and most impactfully, there is Alam’s use of the omniscient narrator. In this novel, the narrator is used as a technique to impart to the reader information that none of the characters know. For instance, the narrator tells us a tick has burrowed into a boy’s skin, unbeknownst to him or anyone else. Later, when he falls ill, the reader is sure they know what has made the boy sick. But is that really the culprit, or is it something else, with the tick serving as a distraction?
Alam pulls the reader along, dropping asides from the narrator, making it clear that something really big and really bad is going to happen. And the reader watches as the characters try to catch up.
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam. HarperCollins Publishers, 2020
Reviewer bio: Julia Wilson is currently pursuing a Masters in Writing at Johns Hopkins University.
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