Review: The Fortune Men is a wonderful, moving, disturbing novel
Two things have always fascinated me. The place once called Tiger Bay and the complex web of hidden histories. Stories that have been obscured by the shifting sands of time.
Coming fresh to the Booker shortlisted ‘The Fortune Men’ I was immediately drawn into the world of the docks and a lost landscape long since reshaped by urban regeneration, development and rebranded as Cardiff Bay.
With great skill and empathy Nadifa Mohamed, the British-Somali author and journalist, has recreated the real life story of Mahmood Mattan, the victim of a great injustice who paid for his life by the actions of the police and authorities.
Nadifa paints a portrait of a man who is far from perfect. His rakish charm gets him out of scrapes and in and out of petty crime but also into deeper trouble.
Mahmood takes his expresso from Lou and smirks at the exchange; he cares nothing for politics. While trying to straighten his cufflinks a drop of coffee runs over the rim and falls on to his brightly polished shoes. Grabbing a handkerchief he wipes it off and buffs the stain away. The brogues are new and as black and sharp as Newfoundland coal, better shoes than any other fella has on his feet. Three pound notes burn away in his pocket, ready for a poker game, saved through missed lunches and nights spent without the fire, mummified in his blankets.
He comes under the spotlight when a shopkeeper is murdered and Mahmood is wrongly accused of committing this violent act. As a result he is put on trial, found guilty, and becomes the last man to be hanged at Cardiff prison. It will take his wife Laura many decades to have his name cleared
From the beginning we are drawn into the world of Tiger Bay in 1952. King George VI has recently died and the docks still teem with life with seafarers from all over the globe. Many of them settle, marry and become part of the fabric of the community creating the diverse network of people that can still be seen today etched on the faces, heritage and customs of the area around Bute Street.
Mahmood is fitted up through false testimony and racist policing which results in his arrest for the murder of Lily Volpert , renamed Violet Volacki, in this work of semi fiction.
While Nadifa Mohamed creates a complex character in her depiction of Mahmood she also paints a vivid portrait of the murder victim,Violet, and her family balancing his story, in the opening chapters, with their perspectives.
The novel is at its most powerful when the author lingers on his imprisonment and, in doing so, provides a back story taking the reader to British Somaliland and evoking his time in the Merchant Navy. Nadifa Mohamed provides a protagonist who is complex, multi-dimensional; a true shapeshifter who survives many narrow scrapes and danger but who cannot get justice for himself at the end.
During his incarceration Mahmood rediscovers his religious beliefs through spiritual contemplation and a reconnection to his God that brings him some solace. In contrast his faith in British justice is shattered by the verdict that condemns him to the hangman’s noose. The truth is not enough to save him. Laura, his wife, only finds out that he has been executed when she goes to visit him in prison. She never gives up and battles into old age to clear his name. Her family are united in purpose although it takes forty six years for his conviction to be quashed by three Appeal Court judges.
Nadifa Mohamed has created a wonderful, moving, disturbing novel, drawing on a huge injustice that lay uncorrected for decades. Her compassion for Mahmood is at the heart of one of the novels of the year. She has recreated a lost world, the world of Tiger Bay and the Docks set alongside the ebb and flow of history, the sense of injustice permeates and instils a quiet anger on the part of the reader.
‘The Fortune Men’ deserves its place at the top table of one of the most prestigious literary prizes. If there is any justice in the literary world then she should pick up the Booker Prize this year.
The Fortune Men is published by Penguin and can be bought here.
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“Stories that have been obscured by the shifting sands of time.” I almost stopped reading there in the first paragraph. Naive. Hidden stories are in the majority energetically pushed into oblivion by powerful agencies. This one for example, will have been pushed down the agenda by police authorities, their allies in government and media. All three have been shown to be deeply racist and to cover up each other’s dirty doings. The “shifting sands of time” is whitewashng language which is hopefully against the rain of the book.