Review by Brian Tanguay
Mohsin Hamid doesn’t entertain simplistic themes or easily resolved problems in his novels. His first book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, dealt with the mistrust between the West and the Muslim world after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The backdrop for Exit West is human migration, a global challenge exacerbated by climate change and war. Each of Hamid’s novels is different, none more so than his latest, The Last White Man. Slender at one hundred-eighty pages, with only four characters, set in a country that is never named, and written in long, flowing sentences, the novel imagines a sudden and stunning transformation of everyday life when white people begin to turn dark.
In an interview with Razia Iqbal of the BBC, Hamid remarked that race is something we have imagined into existence, a social construct that has been used for centuries to establish and maintain hierarchies or to justify the subjugation and exploitation of the land, resources and labor of dark-skinned people. As the novel opens, Anders and Oona are white, just beginning a relationship in a place that has the feel of one of the Scandinavian countries; neither has a high-powered job — Anders works in a gym and Oona teaches yoga — but they seem comfortable materially. But then, in the style of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Anders wakes up one morning to find that his skin has turned dusky. The implications are immediate: one day he can move about at will, without care, safe and secure in his identity, and then he can’t because he feels eyes watching him, judging him, seeing him as a threat. He dons a hoodie when he goes out and avoids making eye contact with people he knows but no longer recognize him, his own father among them.
Anders’s transformation isn’t an isolated anomaly as the same thing begins to happen to other white people, which causes fear and confusion in the population. Violence follows, shops and bars and restaurants close, life is derailed and disrupted. Anders’s father is ill and soon to die, which might account for his more ready acceptance of his son’s transformation; the father understands what really matters at the end, when one departs and another remains. Oona’s mother, on the other hand, is fearful and resentful, susceptible to ideas about the innate savagery of dark-skinned people, certain that the majority white race is being lowered, replaced, on the verge of losing something so fundamental that the violent reaction is justified. Oona’s mother will be among the last to change, and she interprets this as a sign of her fortitude.
Oona changes, too, a change she knew was coming, but for which there is no way to prepare. When it happens she goes to the mirror in her bedroom and gazes at a stranger, but not a complete stranger, a stranger who by the second grows more familiar and recognizable; like Anders, like everyone, Oona must relearn who she is and her place in this changed world.
“The years went by swiftly for Anders and Oona,” Hamid writes, “more and more swiftly, as they do for us all, and while memories of whiteness receded, memories of whiteness lingered, too.” They have a daughter who becomes a typical teenager, a confounding marvel, and all Anders wants for her as he places his brown hand on the side of her brown face is that she have the chance to grow into an old woman. And there it is, the universal human desire, regardless of skin tone or culture or provenance or epoch, to hope for our children’s future.