Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. Mohamed has immersed herself in the details of Mahmood’s life to give us a fully rounded picture of the man. We don’t just walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

The Fortune Men serves to remind us that Cardiff is one of the oldest established multi-ethnic communities in the UK, that is was a place of “robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral corteges for the last of the rich captains of Loudon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Cristi […] of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter.”

But it was also a place of entrenched racism, where “a woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back in your mother’s hole’ look. At him! With his three-piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war. It was too much.”

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

We also get to meet Mahmood’s Welsh wife, Laura, with whom relations are strained at time of his arrest, but who remained loyal to him to the very end and who never stopped fighting to clear his name. We get a sense of their relationship, complicated but full of warmth.

Nor does Mohamed forget the victim and her family, for whom justice is not served. What is it like to know that someone you hold dear has been brutally murdered while you sit, on the other side of a wall, eating supper, telling a joke, looking forward to going to a dance? How do you deal with the aftermath of that?

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

It is well worth reading this interview with Mohamed about her inspiration for writing this book, and the process by which she immersed herself in Mahmood’s life.

And for more background on Cardiff’s multicultural history, I can recommend Sean Fletcher’s documentary for S4C: Terfysg yn y Bae [Trouble in the Bay], which covers the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. (Includes English-language subtitles.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh,

Avoid If You Dislike: A close-up perspective of life under a sentence of death

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of strong tea and ‘We Three’ by the Ink Spots

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

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