Book Review: The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid

This is a brief review of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel. I am a fan of Hamid, because I admire how he accomplishes so much in a short space in his novels. This book is, in a word, clever. The premise, execution, the subject matter and how it is handled is truly intelligent, insightful, and wry. Hamid manages to get a lot of social commentary in without hitting the reader over the head with it. (SOME SPOILERS BELOW.) It is a brilliant book that is absolutely worth reading.

Well-read people will immediately know that this novel alludes to Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” where Gregor Samsa wakes up and is transformed into a giant beetle. However, in this case, Anders (one of two protagonists) wakes up and find that his skin has darkened. Anders goes through various stages of understanding, first experiencing shock but then eventually experiencing fright, as he sees how dark-skinned people are treated differently. His good friend Oona, who soon becomes lover, seems fairly accepting of the change, but not everyone else is as open-minded. Anders’s father, for example, is drawn as a classic, working-class white male who values whiteness, but still cares for his son. Likewise, Oona’s mother, takes comfort in her connection to and white pride groups online. 

As members of the town become dark-skinned one by one, and as violence increases, Anders and Oona deepen their connection, going from casual sex to a relationship and eventually to love. Oona also becomes permanently dark-skinned. Hamid skillfully juxtaposes this intimate relationship against the backdrop of riots and violence against dark-skinned people by those who hang onto their white identity till the last, who try to maintain white supremacy until they too succumb to the fate of turning dark. There is also the shadow of Anders’s father’s illness, which is terminal, along with the recent death of Oona’s brother.

What is interesting, and shocking, perhaps, is that the reader would expect the novel to be more about the realization and acceptance of not being white in society. Instead, Hamid shows us the struggle that white people have with both dark skin as well as becoming a minority. He gets inside the mindset of white people who feel threatened by black or brown people, and in playing this “reverse psychology” trick, illustrates how racism develops and is quite pervasive in American society. Hamid turns the tables on us, because he has crafted a narrative about how racism develops from white fragility and shows us the fearful white’s POV—all quite clever, given that Hamid is of Pakistani origin.

The main criticism I have of the novel is that the paragraphs are constructed by very long, run-on sentences. Conventional punctuation, such as semicolons and periods do not break up the paragraphs, so it requires the reader to pay close attention, making it difficult to read. There is very little dialogue, with Hamid focusing instead on interiority. At times, the novel can feel a little “thin,” as it stays very focused on a few characters’ experiences. My other chief criticism is that the ending feels abrupt, time is summed up too quickly, and it doesn’t quite give us a satisfying resolution. However, this novel is still quite intriguing and really one of a kind, reflecting the events of the past couple of years (a pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, white supremacy riots, etc.) that are transformed into a dystopian world that will appeal to readers of speculative fiction as well as fans of multicultural literature. Hamid always has something interesting to say, and a very engaging way of saying it. I look forward to his next novel, as he is one of the most insightful, thought-provoking writers around.

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