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The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid review – a hypnotic race fable | Mohsin Hamid

“O .”ne morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” So begins Mohsin Hamid’s inventive new novel, The Last White Man. Anders, as it turns out, is not an isolated case. More people in an unnamed town begin to change, including Oona, a yoga instructor and a friend of Anders. Violence inevitably erupts around them. White vigilante gangs terrorise the transformed, while some doggedly refuse to accept an end to whiteness.

At its heart, this is a novel about seeing, being seen, loss and letting go. The loss of privilege that comes from being perceived as white, and no longer being able to view the world from within whiteness, are some of the anxieties examined here.

The immediacy of the novel’s opening may evoke Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosisbut Hamid’s prose style is much more akin to Jose Saramago. His often paragraph-long sentences are set to an unbroken rhythm. At times, it reads like a parable. We move briskly from hypnotic early depictions of social rupture to the tenderness of the closing stages. Hamid’s decision to foreground the themes of loss and mourning allows the novel to speak most incisively to the condition of whiteness itself.

The surrounding mayhem is only ever glimpsed in passing. We never get a firm sense of when or where in the world events are taking place, and are left to orient ourselves through signifiers – a nearby city has tall buildings; There are yoga classes, television news and eurocentric names. Hamid keeps our focus on the close relations between Anders, Oona and their parents. Anders’s father is suffering from cancer. Oona’s mother is a conspiracy theorist, believing the changes are indicative of a wider plot to eradicate white people.

They were converting us, and lowering us, and that was a sign, a sign that if we did not act in this moment there would be no more moments left and we would be gone.

The scenes between Oona and her mother are handled with sensitivity, as are the passages where Anders visits his dying father. He is troubled by the possibility that his father might not recognise him, now that his skin has changed. It’s this clarity of focus that is the novel’s great gift. In the hands of such a deft and humane writer as Hamid, a bizarre construct is moved far beyond any mere “what if”.

Each character deals with the loss of their whiteness differently. Oona’s mother, for instance, retains hope that her grandchildren will be born white, though concedes that it’s probably unlikely. Anders, a gym instructor, tries to cope with being seen differently by colleagues and regular patrons. It’s Oona, however, whose quiet self-inquiry offers the most affecting response.

Oona is also grieving for her brother, who has died from an overdose. The process by which she navigates mourning a sibling and, at the same time, the loss of her former self, becomes revealing. Common rituals are presented as ways to acknowledge the past – revisiting old photographs, returning to familiar hangouts, telling stories of people she’s lost – all the while accepting the necessity for change.

There is a passage where Anders takes Oona to the cemetery where her brother is buried. Both speak about bereavement as part of a profound sense of transcendence.

They felt the dead daily, hourly, as they lived their lives, and their feeling of the dead was important to them, an important part of what made up their particular way of living, and not to be hidden from, for it could not be hidden from, it could not be hidden from at all.

As in Hamid’s 2017 novel, Exit West, where mysterious doors appear in the landscape that allow people to migrate vast distances, The Last White Man places an implausible concept into familiar environments. It can be fun to follow Anders and Oona as they puzzle through their disorientation. But the potency in playing along with such speculative conceits that, in doing so, Hamid asks us also to confront the pervasive constructs that beguile us in the real world – including the concept of race.

Admirably, Hamid resists simplistic resolutions. In making strange what we find familiar, he reminds us of our capacity to break beyond our limited visions of each other. The harder truths of self‑ acceptance, love, and a serious commitment to our own imaginations formulate the only worthwhile responses. As Oona muses toward the end of the novel, social change doesn’t merely proclaim an end to things:

She could shed her skin as a snake sheds its skin, not violently, not even coldly, but rather to abandon the confinement of the past, and, unfettered, again, to grow.

The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid is published by Hamish Hamilton (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. To order a copy for £11.30 go to guardianbookshop.com

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