Posts Tagged ‘Nadifa Mohamed’

This was one of the books I bought in the New Year with my Christmas book vouchers. I first heard about it when it was longlisted and later short listed for the 2021 Booker Prize. The Fortune Men is Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel. She is a writer who was born in Somalia, but moved to Britain as a young child. It is based on a true story – something I actually didn’t know until I had finished the book – one of those stories that could so easily have got forgotten about in the decades since. A little background reading online told me that Nadifa Mohamed’s father had known Mahmood Mattan, during the time he lived in Hull.

Set in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1952, this is the story of Mahmood Mattan, he is a well known figure in the bustling, diverse community of Tiger Bay. The area busy with people from all over the world, Mahmood is a sailor from Somalia, living alongside men from the West Indies and Africa.

“The Bay emerges out of the industrial fog and sea mist like an ancient fossilised animal stepping out of the water. You might walk along the docks and find sailors carrying parrots or little monkeys in makeshift jackets to sell or keep as souvenirs, you can have chop suey for lunch and Yemeni saritrib for dinner, even in London you won’t find the pretty girls — with a grandparent from each continent — that you just stumble into in Tiger Bay.”

Mahmood is living away from his Welsh wife Laura and their three little boys, getting by in a seaman’s boarding house, missing his family. For Mahmood is a bit of a chancer, a sometime petty thief, a gambler, and a smooth-talker. When it got too much for Laura she threw him out. However, the one thing Mahmood is not, is a murderer.

Violet Volacki is a shopkeeper in Tiger Bay, part of the large Jewish community, she lives with her widowed sister Diana and young niece Grace in the rooms above the shop where she makes her living. Violet’s life ends violently when someone rings the shop bell after she has closed up. She goes out to the shop to do some late evening business, her sister and niece catching just the briefest glimpse of a tall black man stood in the doorway of the shop. Violet is brutally murdered, robbed of one hundred pounds – her sister and niece left devastated; their lives changed forever. The police are determined to get their man, and get him quickly. Violet and Diana’s brother-in-law puts up a large reward for information that will lead to a conviction. The murder becomes a hot topic of conversation among the people of Tiger Bay.

Meanwhile Mahmood can’t get work, he owes his landlord rent – he has acquired a coat that he presents to Laura, hoping it will impress her, but she knows he didn’t buy it. Next he is seen at the racetrack with money in his hand. The police come to the boarding house where Mahmood is living, asking questions, and looking around. The other men in the house don’t like having the police around. Having come to their attention, it isn’t long before Mahmood is arrested for theft – but things take a much more serious turn when the police start asking him about Violet Volacki’s shop, and whether he has been there lately. The police annoy Mahmood with their stupid questions and prejudiced attitude – he is a proud man, certain of his own innocence in that other terrible crime. Mahmood believes completley in the world famous British justice system, even when he is locked up on remand, within sight of the little house he once shared with Laura and their boys – these stupid men will soon learn the truth.

Mahmood is a man who has always learnt to adapt himself to his surroundings, shrinking into himself, making himself invisible – less seen at least, to avoid trouble. A quiet man, he is sometimes known as the ghost – because he can slip by quietly and unobtrusively.

In prison Mahmood is visited by Laura, who believes in him, still loving him, wanting to give their marriage another chance, if only he can come home. Another visitor is his friend Berlin, who runs a milk bar in Tiger Bay and works to raise money for Mahmood’s defence. For the evidence against Mahmood is weak, circumstantial at best – even Diana and Grace say he wasn’t the man they saw in the doorway of the shop on that fateful night. The police say they have their man, everyone can sleep safe in their beds, the bad guy is behind bars, and he is a convenient suspect for them, but where is the justice in any of that.

Slowly, the truth begins to dawn on Mahmood, that he is fighting for his life, and he might well lose. The justice system he believed in doesn’t seem to be for him, and he starts to think the thing he is guilty of most is being black. The story of bleak prejudice and inhumanity here is frankly heart-breaking.

“They have created a man – no, a Frankenstein’s monster – and branded it with his name before setting it loose. Standing there, shoulders sagging, in the Law Courts, in Cardiff, in Bilad al-Welsh, he feels the blows of their lies like a man shot with arrows. They are blind to Mahmood Hussein Mattan and all his real manifestations: the tireless stoker, the poker shark, the elegant wanderer, the love-starved husband, the soft-hearted father.”

As he sits in prison Mahmood’s mind returns to the past – to the years growing up in what was then British Somaliland, his journey across Africa to South Africa and his time as a sailor – the life that brought him to Cardiff. As things start to look worse for him, he turns to his religion.

This is an incredibly immersive novel; it is also thought provoking and sad. Mahmood Mattan is presented as a flawed man, and he doesn’t always help himself, but the reader’s heart breaks for him, nevertheless. Compellingly and intelligently told, tense and beautifully written, The Fortune Men breathes new life into a terrible story of racism and injustice.

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