This is my penultimate review of this year’s Booker Prize shortlist, just one more to go before the winner is announced tomorrow night. Nadifa Mohamed is a Somali-British novelist and The Fortune Men is her third novel. She lectures in creative writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London (my very own alma mater!) and attended the University of Oxford. She was born in Hargeisa in what was then Somaliland, but moved to the UK with her parents when she was a child. She is the only British author on the shortlist.
The rest of this review contains spoilers.
The Fortune Men is a fictionalised account of a true story about the last man to be hanged in Cardiff in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali merchant seaman who came to Britain to escape poverty in his homeland and settled in Tiger Bay, Cardiff. There was already a significant immigrant population in the area, including other Somalis, but they still faced discrimination and racial abuse. For Mattan this was made worse by the fact that he married a local woman, Laura Williams, and they had three sons.
Lily Volpert was a middle-aged shopkeeper in the town. She and her sister were themselves immigrants, Jews who escaped the growing Nazi threat in mainland Europe, and they too experienced discrimination and abuse. The picture painted in this book is of a town divided, disparate communities existing alongside one another, but with violence and antipathy always beneath the surface, and often above it.
When Lily is murdered one March evening in her shop, her throat brutally slashed while her sister and niece prepared dinner in the adjoining apartment, the police immediately start looking for a black man; Lily’s young niece reported seeing a dark man in the shop doorway around the same time. The evidence upon which Mahmood is arrested and charged is flimsy and entirely circumstantial, so much so that he assumes it will be only a matter of time before he is released. To him, the arrest seems ridiculous and he is both affronted and angry. Mahmood’s pride does not help him; it seems only to further raise the heckles of the local detectives whose only interest is in securing a speedy conviction.
We learn a lot about Mahmood’s background in Somaliland, his family, his faith and his upbringing. We also learn a lot about Lily, the murder victim, and her family. Both are victims of a racist society and a corrupted justice system. The novel makes it clear that neither the victim, the accused or the community are served by the police or the courts in this case. The chapter covering the trial is interesting. It is written as if from court records and the plain reported proceedings expose the sham nature of trial. These scenes are heartbreaking and made me feel ashamed.
Mahmood and Laura were living apart at the time of the events in the novel; Mahmood lived a shady life as a gambler and petty thief and there were clearly tensions in their relationship. But the love between them and for their children comes across clearly, particularly when Mahmood is being held in prison. Ultimately, Mahmood’s defence could have been strengthened by an alibi had he not chosen to protect Laura from an uncomfortable truth. In real life, Laura fought for decades to clear her husband’s name and his conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998 in the first case to be referred to it by the newly-formed Criminal Review Cases Commission.
This is a story that needed to be told, and Nadifa Mohamed has done the job powerfully and sensitively in The Fortune Men. I listened to this one on audio and it was beautifully read by Hugh Quarshie.