Amanda wonders if it is sexist that Clay always drives. It is their car after all. Amanda’s phone rings as if to join in with her children’s phones. Archie and Rose both engrossed in the screens of their own. The whole family, apart from Clay, who is needed for driving, ensconced in their own private worlds. Amanda is upset that Clay is eating while driving. The GPS has lost their location. For a vacation, there is a lot of angst in the car.
The family is off to Long Island, a holiday, a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of New York City. They are staying at a house that Amanda found on Airbnb and after the annoying drive they are pleasantly surprised that the house is beautiful. For once the photos on the website doing justice. There are no other houses nearby. Peace, serenity, privacy guaranteed.
For six chapters Alam goes out of his way to let the reader know that the family is having a wonderful time. Going to the beach, cooking, hot sex for the parents. But it is all about to change with a knock at the door on their second night.
The knock at the door turns out to be the elderly black couple who own the house. They never called because the phonelines are dead. Not only that but there has been a power blackout on the entire east coast of America. Even after their explanation for the intrusion, Amanda finds it hard to believe that they are indeed the owners of the house.
With little else to talk about, the conversation turns obviously to the cause of the blackout. 9/11 is in the back of everybody’s mind and the word “terrorism” is batted back and forth. Could it be a bomb? They start thinking about the usual suspects, North Korea, Russia, Iran.
By changing the perspective from character to character, Alam adds to the confusion and suspense over what has, is happening, and there is an ever-present sense of foreboding that remains with the reader for the rest of the novel.
The family and the owners seem to be trapped without access to modern technology. Clay gets lost driving for help without the GPS and the others keep checking their phones as if they are somehow going to save them.
Alam ambiguously leaves what is happening a mystery. However, loud noises, similar but louder than a sonic boom, give the impression that maybe a war has started. He does however mention people trapped in powerless elevators doomed to die, and throws in little omnipresent snippets of the future, the allusion is strong that this is the end of the world as we know it.
It is interesting to see what happens on a small family scale, rather than a crazed panicking populous, when such a cataclysmic disaster happens. Interesting as well as alarming as to how much we rely on phones, the internet, and electricity to survive. Surely if there ever was a war, these services would be the first major civilian targets.
Alam uses descriptive writing, compiling lists of objects that surround the characters, but there is a fine line between this style of writing and excessive exposition, and a few times he crosses this line. The best example is when Amanda goes shopping and lists every single item she purchases. There is no reason for this, and it detracts from the flow of the narrative.
Overall, however an enjoyable read. 3.5 Stars!
Alam is the author of the novels Rich and Pretty, That Kind of Mother, and Leave the World Behind.
His short fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Meridian, and elsewhere. He has also written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic, where he is a contributing editor. He co-hosts two podcasts for Slate, where he is also one of the parenting advice columnists. He studied writing at Oberlin College. He now lives in New York with his husband and two kids.