Like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s fifth novel, The Last White Man, awakens one morning to find that he’s undergone a startling change. But instead of assuming the form of an insect, Anders, who went to sleep a white man, rises to discover that his skin has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Hamid, whose previous novel, Exit West, explored the plight of refugees and the issue of immigration through the lens of magical realism, now employs a similar technique to consider the concept of race in this thoughtful allegory.
Once Anders overcomes his initial shock and summons the courage to re-enter the world in his changed condition, he discovers, to his surprise (if not necessarily relief), that his altered appearance is “not unique, nor contagious.” When he returns to the gym, he finds himself suddenly contemplating the possibility of a different relationship with the “dark-skinned cleaning guy,” but Anders’ interactions become increasingly strained. Through his eyes, and those of his girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor who must “will herself to see Anders” in the man who, in reality, is different only in a superficial way, Hamid subtly exposes how judgments of others are so often based on the most superficial characteristics, like skin color.
Hamid only alludes to the dislocation that results from the gradual but inexorable physical transformation of more and more people in the unnamed town and country where the novel is set. Mentions of riots and kidnappings give a sense that society is spinning out of control and hint at the breadth of the disruption, but the struggles of Anders and Oona remain in the foreground.
But Hamid doesn’t confine his attention to The Last White Man’s theme of racial identity. This is also a novel about families, and specifically about the complex relationships between adult children and their parents. Anders’ father, who’s entering the final phase of a terminal illness, is baffled by his son’s changed appearance, and yet he provides a safe haven when white vigilantes arrive at Anders’ door. Oona’s mother, in contrast, is terrified by the present events, her anxiety fueled by the apocalyptic conspiracy theories she consumes obsessively on television and the internet. For both Anders and Oona, the limits of filial love are put to the test.
In recent years, and increasingly since the murder of George Floyd in 2020, there have been countless sociological and political analyses of Americans’ fraught encounters with the construct of race. Hamid adds a worthy voice to the conversation and reminds us yet again that fiction sometimes provides the most direct path to truth.