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Currently shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, The Fortune Men is Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed’s fictionalised retelling of Mahmood Hussein Mattan’s hanging. Mattan, a Somali former merchant seaman, was the last person to be hanged at HM Prison Cardiff. He was executed after being wrongfully convicted of the 1952 murder of pawnbroker and moneylender Lily Volpert (renamed Violet Volacki in the book). Though Mattan always maintained his innocence, it wasn’t until decades after his death that he was acquitted, following decades of campaigning by his widow, Laura.
The novel is set in 1950s Tiger Bay, a culturally diverse and exceptionally poor area of Cardiff. This is where Mattan, who is originally from what was then British Somaliland, lives: in a boarding house for “coloureds”. Laura, who is white and Welsh, lives down the road with their three sons. Though most of the book is told from Mattan’s perspective, several of its early chapters are narrated by Violet and her family: Diana, her widowed sister; and Grace, Diana’s daughter. We get an early hint of where the case is going when Diana and Grace are called into the police station and presented with just one suspect.
Diana thought there would be a line-up of different men but instead they had asked them to stand in a dim corridor while they led the chief suspect towards them. Placed under a large light that made him blink unseeingly in their direction, the suspect’s gaunt face looked eerie, glowing as it did under the merciless yellow light… It was not him, they agreed on that, this was not the face in the doorway.
Detective Powell seemed disappointed in them and led them back out to the street with a request they think hard about what they actually remembered.
Violet’s murder was the result of a botched robbery. There was never any forensic evidence that Mattan was the one to slash her throat. But institutional racism—in the form of paying the prosecution’s main witness, omitting vital evidence, and being called a “semi-civilised savage” by his own defence—led to Mattan’s guilty verdict.
Mohamed delves deep into Mattan’s inner world to paint an incredibly powerful portrait of a man who was wronged by a system he unduly trusted. Despite the racist policies that stop him getting casual work, Mattan feels at home among Tiger Bay’s community. When he is arrested, he barely thinks anything of it: he knows he’s innocent and he trusts the British justice system. Heartbreakingly, it is Mattan’s unwavering faith in this system that ultimately seals his fate.
The Fortune Men is an exceptionally moving novel which shines a light on a little-known part of recent British history. Mattan is a complex, multi-dimensional protagonist and Mohamed successfully uses flashbacks to his childhood in British Somaliland and his life in the merchant navy, to give him great depth. The Fortune Men is a nuanced and compassionate exploration of injustice. By the end of it, I was in tears.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Viking, 2021)
More books by Somali authors:
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
What We’re Told Not to Talk About (But We’re Going to Anyway) by Nimco Ali
Desert Flower by Waris Dirie
Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah
Secrets by Nuruddin Farah
The Yibir of Las Burgabo by Mahmood Gaildon
Nomad Diaries by Yasmeen Mahamoud
Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed
The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
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This sounds like an interesting book, and I think I even remember seeing it somewhere on account of how familiar the cover looks to me. I will consider reading it sometime.
This book sounds really good! I will add it to my list. Thanks also for your list of Somali authors. I’m a big fan of Nuruddin Farah’s work and had been looking to expand to others. Cheers!