Second NetGalley read for the month, and what a powerful novella this is; I’m not sure I’ll be able to do justice to it!

Mohsin Hamid – “The Last White Man”

(08 June 2022)

… so Anders was prepared and not prepared, but prepared as he was, he was not expecting one of the three men who came for him to be a man he knew, a man he was acquainted with, it made it much worse, more intimate, like being shushed as you were strangled.

Anders wakes up one morning in an unknown country* and finds his white skin has turned dark brown. He panics, wants his mum (but she died after a problem with the local water supply, when a number of people developed cancer and died) and phones his old friend and sometime lover, Oona. He lives in a one-room apartment (for the time being) and hides away from his job at the gym and the people around, eventually having to venture out for groceries but wearing a hoody and gloves. When he does return to work, he finds other dark-skinned people looking him in the eye – but why – and his boss opining that he would have not coped if it had been him. Soon we find that the people are changing, one by one, and divisions that open up with (off-stage) violence and discord, where you think that people will find cohesion but instead are divided, start to be untenable as the balance shifts. Meanwhile, Oona experiments with the idea of changing and her mum is sucked into online groups and fake news sites that explain how this is the End of Days – but is it?

We live inside Anders’, Oona’s and Oona’s mum’s heads with no commentary in the narrative or in the events to indicate how we are supposed to read them, who is perhaps right and who is perhaps wrong. We can understand where each is coming from, and although we might cringe when Anders decides to finally talk to the (always dark-skinned) cleaner at the gym and engage him, rather than just seeing him like a puppy to pat on the head, and finds he’s not quite having the conversation we expected, who hasn’t navigated racial sociopolitics awkwardly?

For me in particular, there’s a very powerful passage when Oona is unable to recognise former friends and acquaintances (their skin texture and hair appear to change as well as their colour, from little hints in the book) which would stand as a good description of prosopagnosia (link leads to a post on my other blog), or face-blindness, which I have myself:

There was a kind of blindness in seeing people this way, and Oona ran into people she knew without knowing that she knew them, and had a more difficult time judging what sort of person a person was, whether they were nice or friendly or dangerous, but along with this blindness, as with actual blindness, there was a new kind of sight, other sense that grew stronger, a feeling that developed from how someone spoke to her, and how their mouth moved, and what expression their eyes appeared to hold, what light she saw in them, was it curiosity or anger, and she had to work harder to make her way with people, starting from scratch every time, and it was tiring, wearing her out by the end of the day.

Is this a novel about Covid or race? Both, I think – there’s that fear of “getting” it then the almost relief when you do, the balance shifting to everyone having had it, the looting and hoarding, but then it’s also about the sense of loss of one’s whiteness, of the certainties, of realising how people of colour have been treated. But it’s also hugely a novel about loss. Oona has lost her dad and then her brother, and Anders’ father is failing – we do see inside his head a little, too, in some very moving passages.

The style of the book is matter of fact, distanced, as I said, riots and violence happening off-stage but still palpably there. There’s a sense of fear and disconnection: I liked the style but some people have found it too cold. We’re not told what to think, but TO think – for example, like when reading about the Holocaust or other ethnic cleansing, you can’t help but think “Where would I go?” “Would I shield people?”. The plain style makes it easy to read but not easy to skim; you can’t stop reading but you also don’t stop thinking. It’s so powerful, but then there is also a powerful sense of community, healing and hope buried in the horror.

I found Hamid’s earlier novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist“, equally compulsive, and I see I will have to read his other works. Powerful and thought-provoking, this one will stay with me.

*I was convinced the country was Norway, from the names and snow, and also the language style somehow reminded me of books like Anja Snellman’s “Continents“. Apparently other people have seen the country as the US or UK. The whole thing being so vague and the lack of commentary on people’s interior monologues really fits with reader response theory, that the reader creates the book as they read it.

Thank you to Penguin for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “The Last White Man” was published on 11 August 2022.