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The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid


Mohsin Hamid is a twice long listed Booker prize winner, and for good reason. His quality prose and lyrical construction brought the world sublime novels including The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West. Both have a structure and form to them quite unlike anything. It seems that once again Hamid is trying to bring some of the magic that earned him a place on the coveted list, but it just never quite lands with the same effect.


The Last White Man is Kafkaesque in its presentation. Like the classic Metamorphosis the story begins with a man, Anders, who wakes to find that his appearance is not what he thought it to be. This first line gives the main thrust of the story:


“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown”


From here the story follows the misadventures of a man who wakes up in this state, including a sweetly constructed love story between Anders and Oona - a white woman of similar disposition.


The story is short and readable in one sitting, more of a novella in that regard, and while the plot or story of the novel may be tightly bound, the writing oscillates between some beautiful, lyrical, prose and some occasionally mundane and dull passages.


Sentence wise (for sentences have always been the magnificence of Hamid’s style) as with How to be filthy rich in rising Asia, Hamid is trying new and rather out there structures. Some sentences wander their way across an entire page, split between mostly commas rather than any other kind of internal punctuation, and often beginning with ‘And…’ to add to the longevity of the sentence and, in turn, paragraph.


However, it is the questions posed by the content of the plot that linger long after reading. As with Kafka’s masterpiece where readers were left wondering esoteric and metacognitive questions about themselves, so too does Hamid ask the readers to question their morality in the face of drastic shifts in complexion, and by extension, race. There are pockets of racism presented throughout and one has to look closely at the motivations of the minor characters who carry out these actions.


It has a fable-like quality to it in the supernatural elements that weave throughout. As more and more of the locals in this city make a shift from white to this deep brown, the reader may find themselves experiencing a shift in themselves. The reader recognises the effect on Anders, but perhaps have their own awakening through Oona’s stoicism through her journey to a new normality.


Like his previous four novels, Hamid is adventurous with his prose and establishes himself again as a writer of note among his contemporaries. While it doesn’t have the same impact as, perhaps, some of his previous worlds, it creates the basis for some inner reflections for the reader in a time when, in a world full of chaos and turmoil, it is needed most.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

Penguin

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