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Provocative and timely, ‘The Last White Man’ offers a parable on race

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Mohsin Hamid’s slim new novel begins like a folk tale:

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

Like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Anders doesn’t know the reason for his metamorphosis — only that it is happening. Before long, the darkening spreads through his unnamed town, and then the world. The novel’s small cast of characters includes Anders’ father, his old girlfriend, Oona, and her mother, who decries how the world is transforming and how “our people” are changing.

It’s clearly an allegory on race — one that finds Anders working at a local gym and noticing how the remaining white people look at him with “quick, evasive stares.” There are bursts of violence, gunshots, power outages and full-blown riots, as the people in Anders’ inner circle and citizens of the wider, dystopian world come to terms with what’s happening.

The message is provocative and timely. Hamid says he was inspired by his own experience after 9/11, and the story literally spells out the racist fear of the “great replacement” theory. But Hamid’s writing style in this novel — which features wandering, breathless, paragraph-long sentences — proved a technical challenge.

Remembering the brilliance and the novel storytelling of the author’s previous novel, “Exit West,” I’m thinking “The Last White Man” would benefit from multiple readings.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.