Ii’m delighted to be one of the stops today on the blog tour for Mohsin Hamid’s new novel. If only The Last White Man wasn’t so thought-provoking to get some really coherent thoughts together, my head is buzzing with it still! I love novels that really make me think, like the previous ones by Hamid that I’ve read (Exit West and The Reluctant Fundamentalist which I read pre-blog), and can now add his latest to that list.
It begins with a simple riff on Kafka:
One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.
After the opening, Kafka’s Gregor Samsa nightmare is left behind – but our attention is well and truly grabbed instantly. Anders is understandably confused and scared, and phones in sick to the gym where he works. He has to tell someone, and that is his friend and new lover Oona, who soon comes to terms with his transformation, allowing him to think that life may be able to go on. Meanwhile, the same thing is happening to others and there are backlashes in some areas against this change in the social order, but not everywhere. Many older folk, including Anders’ father who is dying and Oona’s mother with whom she has a tricky relationship, are struggling with this too. Anders and Oona’s relationship deepens through the novel which is lovely to see, and when she finally turns, they are in love all over again, there is hope. That’s a very quick synopsis; now let me dissect my thinking just a little.
Trust Hamid to take one of the big perennial issues of the day and craft a novel full of ideas to make the reader think. As he did with the refugee crisis in Exit West, which continues unabated (where are those doors?), he looks at skin colour as a potential leveller in this story. It is told in a fabulistic, rather hypnotic style, as the largely internalised thoughts of Anders and Oona, and occasionally Oona’s difficult mother who is glued to fake news sites trumpeting about the End of Days.
Occasionally the style jars, there are a couple of passages involving Oona and Oona’s mother (she is always referred to thus) which meant that there were so many Oonas on the page, the name rather stuck out like a sore thumb, but that is a small gripe. There is a fairytale quality to the prose and a moral ending which suggests that if, for privileged white people, skin colour was taken out of the equation (or any other protected characteristic or bias for that matter), we might learn to get on together better, which is laudable of course. It is a little simplistic though, for skin colour isn’t the same as race or nationhood, but that’s an argument I don’t feel qualified to discuss here, and one that is also beyond the scope of Hamid’s vision in this short novel.
Anders and Oona live in an unspecified location, there are no real clues to narrow it down other than the two names, one Scandi, one Scottish. It really doesn’t matter except to indicate their white origin. It could be Western Europe where Anders’ namesake, the far-right terrorist Anders Breivik killed 77 in Norway back in 2011, or perhaps more likely, given that Hamid spends some of his time in New York, Trump’s USA. I am also indebted to Liz Dexter’s review (here), which highlighted me to the fact that this is essentially Hamid’s Covid novel too – which hadn’t occurred to me but makes perfect sense. Thanks Liz!
Clothed as a modern fairytale of speculative fiction, this novel has the power to make you think and leaves you asking questions. That is an important quality. Although it is short, it isn’t a necessarily quick read, there’s a lot unsaid between the lines to ponder on. It has just occurred to me, having been watching Sean Bean and Nicola Walker in Marriage on the telly, that in concentrating on ordinary people’s otherwise mundane lives there is a similar quality in Hamid’s novel – amplified by circumstance.
P.S. You can see from the photo (right), that the insides of this novel are rather bright – bright orange boards and neon orange flaps (with unreadable white text – grr!), and shocking pink endpapers. I was just wondering how these particular colours, which are echoed on the dust-jacket text got chosen – particularly the white on neon orange flaps!
Source: Review copy for the tour – thank you!
Hamish Hamilton hardback, 180 pages.
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