The Fortune Men is Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, shortlisted this past year for two of Britain’s distinguished literary awards, the Booker Prize and the Costa Novel Award. The story fictionalizes real life events concerning the wrongful murder conviction and execution of a Somali sailor in 1952 in Cardiff, Wales. It skillfully combines the factual with the imagined to immerse us not in a mystery of what happened but in the complexity of the egregious and inhumane wrongfulness that sent 29-year-old Mahmood Mattan to the gallows.
For years Mahmood sailed the merchant seas far from his home in British Somaliland to see the world, until a hot chink of coal from a ship’s furnace damaged his right eye. He became land-bound, “fixed” in the longitude and latitude of Cardiff, where he met and married his Welsh wife Laura and there settled with their family of three boys. By the time we meet him, Mahmood is estranged from his family, broke, and without work. He’s known among the port town’s dockyards, gambling locales, and lodging houses as an elegant wanderer always looking for opportunities to make easy money. He’s a petty thief and a pool shark. His life, however, appears to be on the upswing when he wins big at the Somerton Park greyhound race stadium. He buys a three-foot tall stuffed bear for his boys and repays the money he stole from a local mosque. Also, he’s found a job at a rubber hose factory, but he needs to offload a satin-lined navy trench coat he stole for Laura (who refused to accept it) and then he can have a clean, new start.
Meanwhile, a shopkeeper has been murdered, Violet Volacki, who fatefully answered a knock at the door after closing hours. Her sister and niece saw a man on the doorstep, “a black shadow with a mouth of gold.” The young Grace thinks the man looked Somali, but her mother Diana is not sure, because “sometimes some of the West Indian men are long and lean and have those gaunt faces too.” As Mahmood waits in the shipyard for his fence to buy the stolen coat, he’s approached by “two thickset men, wearing long black overcoats that give them the bearing of undertakers, with just their pale chins visible under the shadows of their hats.” They are policemen arresting Mahmood for larceny, but during questioning they talk about the dead woman and not the coat.
There’s powerful storytelling here of arrogance, greed, and racism juxtaposed with a man’s innocence and his naïve belief in the justice system. Nadifa Mohamed keenly develops her character’s muddled understanding of his fate as he travels through the prison and court systems, and she does so with robustly imagined often poetic sentences. Consider this scene, when Mahmood is arrested on that cold night in the shipyard, aware of the approach of the two men:
They step closer and closer, the snap, snap, snap of their soles biting the glittering cobbles. Mahmood steps back into the confusion of carts, barrels and diesel stores, wishing his dark skin would absorb all the darkness of the night, his breath leaving his nostrils in two thin white streams.
A sense of doom increases, no one listening to Mahmood and piecing together the obvious facts; no one considering the cultural and language barriers that figure into his responses. Witnesses keep coming forward with false accounts fueling a surge toward his conviction, while Mahmood’s distress and disbelief, the horror of blatant contradictions in the courtroom testimonies, and his final days become vividly real. Herein, knowing we’re reading a novelized version of true events, witnessing a man falsely judged by a merciless, racially charged community, the tragedy pierces.
Despite its power, the storytelling occasionally misfires. What frustrates is the way we’re informed of Mahmood’s backstory. It’s terse event-telling, lacking pathos, and unfolds with roaming disconnection. Also, there’s frequent usage within the narrative of words from Mahmood’s native language, and they’re not easily understood with failed support from the context. Looking the words up online helps but breaks and distresses the reading mood.
At the book’s end, a photocopy of a newspaper article reports Mahmood’s execution, titled “Woman Weeps As Somali Is Hanged.” Nadifa Mohamed also includes an epilogue that informs of family efforts to clear Mahmood’s name, a success they achieve forty-six years later in 1998. Nadifa Mohamed has written an impressive and profound historical novel.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books. A version of this review aired on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM, broadcasting throughout central Ohio.