Book Review

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, some-time petty thief. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer.

So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn’t too worried. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in a country where, he thinks, justice is served.

It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman’s noose, he begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.

The Fortune Men is the second of this year’s Booker Prize longlisted titles that I’ve read, and – for me personally – one of the more intriguing novels to be nominated for the prize this year.

It’s a fictionalised account of Mahmood Mattan who was convicted of the murder of Lily Volpert (Violet Volacki in the novel) in 1952.  While I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews for obvious reasons, I don’t think it’s too great a leap to work out how this goes (the blurb gives quite a lot away as well).  I won’t call it out specifically, but Mattan’s story is, unfortunately, noteworthy for its outcome.  You don’t need to be familiar with Mattan and his story before going into this – his name was new to me, but Nadifa Mohamed lays out his story beautifully, introducing us to Mattan and those closest to him as well as the family of the shopkeeper he is accused of murdering. 

The author has clearly done a significant amount of research for this novel and successfully brings Cardiff’s Tiger Bay to life for the reader.  We first meet Mattan while he is a free man, and this allows the reader to get to know him under “normal” circumstances.  To me, he seems to stand out from his peers, something which may not have been to his benefit.  He comes across as being quite a character – deliberate in his sartorial choices, bold and street smart out of necessity, and something of a lone wolf despite his few close friends.  As the novel progresses, we learn more about his backstory and how he came to Cardiff from his native Somalia (British Somaliland at the time) his experiences as a merchant seaman, and his marriage to Laura.

Set in the 1950s, it’s no surprise that race plays a significant part in the novel.  This quickly becomes apparent in Mattan’s treatment at the hands of the authorities, in his struggle to find regular employment, and how he is perceived and treated by others.  His marriage to a local Cardiff woman is definitely seen as unusual for the time, and yet, despite recent differences between the two that have seen them separate, there’s clearly a lot of love between them.  Mattan spends much of his time thinking of Laura and their sons while awaiting his trial, and his love for his young family is overwhelming, despite some bitterness caused by their separation.

Mattan is clearly no angel, and the author doesn’t try to portray him as such.  He spends much of his time and the national assistance given to those who need it gambling.  He is familiar with members of the local police force due to various instances of theft and shoplifting.  But despite this he is not a murderer.  We observe Mattan’s trial in the latter part of the novel and it very quickly becomes apparent that there is no evidence to support Mattan’s arrest.  The verdict of the jury and the ultimate outcome is hard to swallow given this, and his conviction seems to be based upon poor witness testimony that is potentially influenced by the availability of a reward offered by the family of Violet / Lily.  To be honest, his solicitor doesn’t help matters, either.  He tries, I think, and yet he does a poor job of it. 

The Fortune Men is a harrowing read recounting the life and times of Mahmood Hussein Mattan.  As I’ve mentioned, the outcome doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a journey that is still very much worth taking.  I can see this going on to be shortlisted for this year’s Booker, although that is based upon me having read just two of the longlisted titles so far!

The Fortune Men is published by Viking and is available in hardback, eBook, and audio formats now. 

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