‘The Fortune Men’ by Nadifa Mohamed

2021, 384 pages

Other than How Green Was My Valley which I read about forty-five years ago, I don’t think that I’ve read any other books set in Wales. There’s no green valleys in this book, only the dockland streets of Tiger Bay in Cardiff, home to immigrants of different nationalities. Set in February 1952, as the King dies and Princess Elizabeth is named queen, Mahmood Mattan a seaman from British Somaliland is arrested for the murder of Jewish shopkeeper Violet Volacki in a run down neighbourhood. She is known to him, but he vehemently denies that he had anything to do with the murder. The police do not have a strong case. Even the murdered woman’s sister and niece do not identify him as the murderer, but he is betrayed by people around him who have been influenced, perhaps, by police coercion and the ‘encouragement’ of a reward offered by the family. Mattan is a slippery character- he lies, he steals, he cheats – and you are not sure until the end of the book whether he is telling the truth or not. Based on a true story, he finds little solace from British justice.

The book takes a little while to get going, moving from the perspective of one character after another. However once Violet is killed, the action speeds up even though time seems to stretch interminably, as well. The trial is reported in question and answer format, which I felt was perhaps a bit of a cop-out from the writer’s point of view. But after he is sentenced to death, the slow elapse of days underscores the cold-eyed indifference of capital punishment as he waits, a very small cog in a huge system that he does not fully understand and which treats him as easily dispensable.

The book teems with immigrants from many countries, and characters often break into their own language. Mattan is married to a British woman, who suffers with him the prejudice and powerlessness of people with few financial and cultural resources.

Mattan remains a rather oblique character throughout, although as his swagger and defensiveness drop away, it is possible to have more sympathy for him at the end of the book. The book ends with a newspaper article about the case and its denouement, and reading the case in its bald newspaper presentation makes you realize that Mohamed has managed to flesh out Mattan beyond the few facts that would be skimmed over by a reader at the time. There is at least some justice in the Epilogue. It certainly wasn’t there in the trial.

My rating: 6.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Library, but then I realized that I also had an e-book of it as well.

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