Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel opens with a Kafkaesque twist: Anders, a white man, wakes to find that he has turned ‘a deep and undeniable brown’. Unrecognisable to his entourage, he first confesses his predicament to Oona, an old friend and new lover. Similar metamorphoses begin to be reported throughout the country and violence ensues as pale-skinned militants stalk the streets.
In its use of a speculative device, The Last White Man recalls Hamid’s 2017 Booker-shortlisted Exit West, in which migrants teleport through Narnia-like doors. Whereas his first three books played with narrative conventions – a trial framing Moth Smoke (2000), dramatic monologue in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and the self-help conceit of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) – these last two books play with reality to query societal conventions.
Hamid has said that The Last White Man was born out of his experience in the aftermath of 9/11, when he lost ‘many of the benefits of whiteness’ previously afforded by virtue of his education and prestigious job (as a management consultant at McKinsey). The allegory probes timely issues around race and identity without being heavy-handed, as Hamid’s wry humour leavens the weighty subject matter.
Where the book is most affecting is in its deft depiction of the personal: Oona’s and Anders’s deepening intimacy, the shifting dynamics with their parents and its poignant portrayal of loss. Both characters have already lost one parent, and Oona is mourning the recent death of her twin brother from an overdose. In what may be the most moving deathbed scene since Ivan Ilyich, we watch as Anders’s father – the titular last white man – approaches dying as a final act of fathering. ‘We have come to disavow our own mortality,’ Hamid lamented in a Spectator books podcast. In a secular society, fiction is one of our few means of enquiry into how to live and die well.
After a period of unrest, a kind of calm settles once the majority of the population in The Last White Man has darkened. At the end of the book, Hamid fast-forwards to a time when whiteness is a distant memory, inviting readers to imagine the possibility of a post-racial world. With paragraphs often made up of one long sentence, the narrative is propelled by the cadence of commas. While it may not seem an obvious beach read, at a slim 180 pages of text, The Last White Man can be savoured in a single, thought-provoking sitting.