Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed


Viking, 2021
372 pp

(read twice)

The Fortune Men focuses on a Somali immigrant, Mahmood Mattan, who in 1952 was accused of the murder of a shopkeeper in Tiger Bay, Cardiff.  I had absolutely no idea going into this book that it was based on a true story,  one I'd never heard about but one which the author obviously believed needed retelling; in this interview she notes that she had a "feeling" that it was a story she "couldn't shake."   By the way, clicking on that first link gives away the story, so don't go there unless you've read the book first. 

The novel begins as the radio announces the news of the death of King George VI in Berlin's milk bar, a hangout for "many of Tiger Bay's Somali sailors."  Mahmood had been to sea as well, but has spent the last three years doing "just foundry work and poky little boilers in prisons and hospitals."   As we're told, "The sea still calls" to him, but his Welsh wife Laura and their three young boys "anchor him here."  On that night, as "news of the King's death drifts from many of the low-slung wind-blown terraces," he walks down Bute Street and notes "a few lights still on" at some of the businesses he patronizes, including that of Volacki's, "where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura."  It is a small shop left by her father to  Violet Volacki, who lives there with her sister Diana and niece Grace.  After the shop closes, and as they are having dinner and making plans for the upcoming Purim festival, the doorbell rings.  Although Diana encourages Violet to let whoever it is wait until tomorrow, "that bell and the shop have a hold on her that she can't resist," and she goes out to answer the door.  That will be the last moment that Diana and Grace see Violet alive; she is later found dead, murdered in her own shop.  

Word quickly spreads that the killer was a Somali man, and Mattan is arrested, first on two minor charges for which he is put behind bars, while the inspector handling the case also knows Mattan will be going down for Violet's murder.  There is absolutely no evidence pointing to Mahmood as the killer; Diana and Grace both say that he is not the "coloured" man they viewed from the dining room as Violet went to answer the doorbell.    As the dustjacket blurb reveals, and as the author fully establishes here,  Mattan is a 
"chancer, sometime petty thief... a smooth-talker with an eye for a good game. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer." 
However, none of that matters -- as is made clear to Mahmood, "You'll hang, whether you did it or not."  

This book, with its subject matter, should have been right up my reading alley, and the first time through I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me because I didn't really engage with it all that well.   That fact really bothered me for a long time, leading me eventually to  believe that I must have read it at the wrong time while  grim happenings were going on in my own world and my attention was mentally elsewhere.   That was three weeks ago, and I decided to give it another go this past week since the situation at home has drastically improved.  The second time through (and this time with hindsight into the reality behind the fiction),  I engaged with it much more, catching many things I'd missed the first time, and while certain parts of the novel still seemed to drag a bit in the telling, all and all it became a better book on this last reading.  

I keep thinking about the epilogue, considering the fact that the real Mahmood Mattan had someone in his corner to try to right the egregious wrongs done to him (albeit posthumously);  it makes me wonder how many people of that time and that place had been victims of the same racism, xenophobia, betrayal, and  police complicity and have similar stories yet untold.  The Fortune Men is not at all a feel-good novel, but it is a very human story, bringing forth from the past a sad truth that remains extremely relevant today.  

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