The LeftoversOne day, without any explanation, people all over the world just disappeared. In the wake of the tragedy the citizens of Mapleton are trying to piece together their lives. Town mayor, Kevin Garvey, is trying to keep a positive outlook despite his wife leaving him to join a new cult, the Guilty Remnant, and his son ditching college to become a disciple of the self-styled prophet Holy Wayne. Even his once loving daughter, Jill, has turned against him.

As Kevin navigates his new life he finds friendship in odd places, including in Nora. Nora’s whole family (her two young children and her husband) disappeared during the Sudden Departure or ‘Rapture-like phenomenon’. She tries to grieve in peace but in a small town like Mapleton Nora becomes the subject of gossip and scandal, the enormity of her loss marking her out as different.

It’s hard when a book sounds intriguing but you don’t know what to expect from it. The Leftovers doesn’t sound like anything out there. The unexplained disappearances point to science fiction, a cult leader named Holy Wayne seems like comedy or social satire, a man dealing with his two wayward children – American family drama. Can it be all these things successfully? It’s a big risk for Tom Perrotta to take. People love to categorise but The Leftovers eludes easy definition. And I think this will stop a lot of people from giving it a chance. But please don’t let it stop you. The Leftovers is excellent.

It soon becomes clear that The Leftovers is only speculative fiction in the remotest sense. Apart from the disappearances the world is just as it was. The Rapture-like event is an inventive conceit, a jumping off point to explore loss, upheaval, the inexplicable, and the human psyche in a way that’s touching and refreshing. It’s a clever way to look at the dysfunctional American family.

The characters do some completely nutty things. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, joins a cult that requires members to take a vow of silence, chain smoke and stalk people. Jill shaves off all her hair. Kevin’s son, Tom, takes a road trip with a pregnant teenager who believes she’s carrying the son of a holy prophet. College students, calling themselves the Harvard flagellants, march through Harvard Yard whipping themselves with cat-o’-nine-tails, while yelling out their SAT scores. The Barefoot People travel around the country holding solstice gatherings where everybody takes drugs, has sex and dances. Under normal circumstances I would pronounce them all idiots and be done with them (even if I did find the stuff about bizarre cults and religions fascinating). But even if I normally wouldn’t understand at all, Perrotta makes them almost seem sane, just ordinary people trying to cope under insane circumstances. The affection he has for his characters made me feel like if everyone just had more time to adjust they could get through it. I wanted so badly for them to be all right.

The big draw is Perrotta’s writing. He knows people. He knows how they interact, their deepest desires, their greatest fears.

Without it, he would’ve become one of those lost souls you saw all over campus that winter, pale, vampiry kids who slept all day…habitually checking their phones for a message that never seemed to come.

His adroit portraits (here, of the distracted grief of young people) are always evocative and amusing.

At his local bar, the Carpe Diem, Kevin Garvey runs into Melissa, a woman he would have slept with had it not been for a touch of performance anxiety.

“Melissa.” He made an effort to match the warmth of her greeting. “It’s been a while, huh?”

“Three months,” she informed him. “At least.”

“That long?” He pretended to do the math in his head, then expelled a grunt of fake wonderment.

Perrotta perfectly captures the awkwardness of faux-polite social interactions. He’s wryly funny and terrifically insightful.

In one scene Nora feels brave enough to go Christmas shopping at the mall. Even simple tasks have changed irrevocably for those who have been left behind. Everything she does is a reminder of what she’s lost. At the mall Nora considers buying a wildly expensive massage chair, which leads her to think about the implications of actually allowing herself to feel good all the time. Grief and loss have come to define her, what would she be without it? It’s an odd interlude but, as with the rest of The Leftovers, it’s intimate, finely drawn, and it makes you think.

In another scene Nora and Kevin have an argument, and Nora storms off. And it’s exactly how it feels when you’ve had a fight with someone you really care about. Who calls first to apologise? Should you pretend you don’t even care? But it’s eating you up inside not calling, so maybe you should just call straight away. Absolutely spot on.

The Sudden Departure gives Perrotta the opportunity to explore the dark and strange in humanity but also its capacity for forgiveness and love. The Leftovers is darker than I expected, there were times when I was terrified that nothing would ever work out, but it’s tempered by glimpses of humour and hope, hope that Kevin and the rest of them, will somehow muddle through.