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The Fortune Men

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The story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times . . . 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, petty criminal. He is a smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he The story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times . . . 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, petty criminal. He is a smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn't too worried. Since his Welsh wife Laura kicked him out for racking up debts he has wandered the streets more often, and there are witnesses who allegedly saw him enter the shop that night. But Mahmood has escaped worse scrapes, and he is innocent in this country where justice is served. Love lends him immunity too: the fierce love of Laura, who forgives his gambling in a heartbeat, and his children. It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of returning home dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a fight for his life - against conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty - and that the truth may not be enough to save him. ***PRAISE FOR NADIFA MOHAMED*** 'A moving and captivating tale of survival and hope . . . confirms Mohamed's stature as one of Britain's best young novelists' Stylist, on The Orchard of Lost Souls 'Mixing startling lyricism and sheer brutality . . . [Black Mamba Boy] is a significant, affecting book' Guardian 'With the unadorned language of a wise, clear-eyed observer, Nadifa Mohamed has spun an unforgettable tale' Taiye Selasi, on The Orchard of Lost Souls


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The story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times . . . 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, petty criminal. He is a smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he The story of a murder, a miscarriage of justice, and a man too innocent for his times . . . 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, petty criminal. He is a smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he is not a murderer. So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn't too worried. Since his Welsh wife Laura kicked him out for racking up debts he has wandered the streets more often, and there are witnesses who allegedly saw him enter the shop that night. But Mahmood has escaped worse scrapes, and he is innocent in this country where justice is served. Love lends him immunity too: the fierce love of Laura, who forgives his gambling in a heartbeat, and his children. It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of returning home dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a fight for his life - against conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty - and that the truth may not be enough to save him. ***PRAISE FOR NADIFA MOHAMED*** 'A moving and captivating tale of survival and hope . . . confirms Mohamed's stature as one of Britain's best young novelists' Stylist, on The Orchard of Lost Souls 'Mixing startling lyricism and sheer brutality . . . [Black Mamba Boy] is a significant, affecting book' Guardian 'With the unadorned language of a wise, clear-eyed observer, Nadifa Mohamed has spun an unforgettable tale' Taiye Selasi, on The Orchard of Lost Souls

30 review for The Fortune Men

  1. 4 out of 5

    David

    I really enjoyed this. Historical fiction works best when it humanizes people who have been lost to memory, and Nadifa Mohamed does excellent work on that front. The prose is clunky in places and the pacing sometimes uneven, but the humanity and dignity this brings to Mahmood Mattan transcends those nits. The fictionalized backstory in Chapter 7 was particularly compelling.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer

    Now shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Prize. It’s not that Mahmood believes himself important, the past few months have put away that illusion, but he is extraordinary, his life has been extraordinary. The things he has got away with, the things that he has been punished for, the things he has seen ……. Re-read after its shortlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize - a book which can be seen as historical fiction but as this article shows (https://www.thenational.wales/news/19...) still has conte Now shortlisted for the 2021 Costa Novel Prize. It’s not that Mahmood believes himself important, the past few months have put away that illusion, but he is extraordinary, his life has been extraordinary. The things he has got away with, the things that he has been punished for, the things he has seen ……. Re-read after its shortlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize - a book which can be seen as historical fiction but as this article shows (https://www.thenational.wales/news/19...) still has contemporary resonance. The author is a British-Somali and together with Sunjeev Sahita’s “China Room” - their merited inclusion is a welcome change after a year where one of the judges Sameer Rahim defended a disappointingly (and disappointing) American-heavy longlist by saying “Only a handful of novels by British ethnic minorities were entered.” As an aside both authors were on Granta’s last (2013) once-a-decade list of Best Young British Novelists (which also included three Women’s Prize Winners - Naomi Alderman, Kamilia Shamsie and Zadie Smith). Overall I found this an enjoyable and engrossing tale - one which is though perhaps stands out more for the true-life story it tells than for its literary style. That terrible and sobering story, of the wrongful conviction and judicial murder of a Cardiff based Somali seaman - Mahmood Mattan - in 1952 (for the brutal murder of a Jewish shopkeeper and unofficial money lender in Bute Town in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay area; a miscarriage of justice underpinned (as is so often the case) with racial prejudice and the fear of the outsider is covered excellently in this article https://www.africansinyorkshireprojec... And perhaps most impactfully in this short video at the end of the article where we hear, many years later, from Mahmood’s white, Welsh wife (and mother of his three children) - Laura https://vimeo.com/194263366 The article refers to (given it’s Yorkshire focus) on a short period that the couple spent in Hull - and this was of particular resonance to the author as her now deceased father knew Mattan in Hull - describing him as a rather ordinary, well dressed man - but in her further research and writing - she uncovered a much more complex character. I do not often comment on book covers but in this case I felt the cover captured the author’s intent perfectly. A back cover of a street scene but with a white silhouette of a man - but then a front cover showing the man himself - a well dressed Somalian - showing how the book is not just about telling the story but in capturing the essence of the man at the centre of the injustice. The title “Fortune Men” is what Somalis called those who became sailors as they were comparatively incredibly wealthy when they returned. I assumed its use here was ironic as this book shows the other side - misfortune . It’s a link also to the author’s first novel as the term is used there. The opening of the novel is somewhat chaotic - a range of characters and viewpoints - capturing I think deliberately the both vibrant and notorious multi-ethnic melting pot that was the Tiger Bay docks area of the 1950s where Cardiff attracted workers from around the world to its export of South Wales coal and steel (an area of whose other famous resident Shirley Bassey makes a slightly gratuitous cameo appearance). Eventually though the book homes in on the viewpoints of the two victims (one of injustice, one or murder) Mattan and the Jewish shopkeeper (here sensitively changed to Violet Volacki at the request of a family member) as well as the latter's sister Diana and niece Grace (the real life equivalent of the latter was I believe interviewed by the author as part of her researches - and I am assuming was the person who requested the change of names). And this gives a welcome focus to the novel. One of the most impressive pieces of the novel - and really I think when the power of a fictional retelling comes to bear - is a lengthy chapter when the author imagines Mattan’s back story in Somaliland and what drew him to become a stoker in the merchant navy, his life there covered in a separate briefer but equally impressive section. Although the power of the sections is slightly hampered by the excessive use of untranslated terms. Similarly we read about Diana’s history - her determination with her husband to sign up after Kristallnacht for what they saw as an inevitable conflict with Nazi evil. Although I did feel that the victim’s family’s part of the story ended slightly abandoned part way through the novel. But really the book is about the picture she paints of Mattan in 1952. And it is a complex picture - a proud man, one who broke free of the constraints of his family life, who now has seen much of the world and speaks five languages but also something of a chancer, one who struggles with a gambling addiction which leads him to petty crime. But ultimately one whose downfall is his belief that, for all the prejudices of its society, the British legal system is nevertheless one committed to truth. A belief that (together with his views on how best to conduct himself with the police and then in court) proves terribly ill founded in light of the desperation of the police for a quick conviction, the repercussions for him of the Somalia communities wariness of the police, the unfortunate but inevitable distortions to justice caused by a reward offered by the victim’s family and a lazy if not racist solicitor who shockingly ends up basing his case on the defendant being a half-educated savage. Overall 3.5 rounded up.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader

    Mostly set in Wales in the 1950s, The Fortune Men is the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor and immigrant, a father and a husband, accused of a murder of which he is innocent. Even though the synopsis gives away Mahmood’s future, I always hoped for a different outcome for him. As the investigation plodded along, I thought the truth would be uncovered. As his life in prison became less hopeful and more dire, the runaway train was barreling off the tracks and no one ever stopped it. Nadifa Mo Mostly set in Wales in the 1950s, The Fortune Men is the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor and immigrant, a father and a husband, accused of a murder of which he is innocent. Even though the synopsis gives away Mahmood’s future, I always hoped for a different outcome for him. As the investigation plodded along, I thought the truth would be uncovered. As his life in prison became less hopeful and more dire, the runaway train was barreling off the tracks and no one ever stopped it. Nadifa Mohamed is a skilled and beautiful storyteller. I could tell from the first paragraph that I would love this book. An important voice, told by a Somali-British woman, sharing a story that cannot, must not, be forgotten. Mahmood Mattan’s case was built on a house of cards, and he was fully exonerated decades after his death. Precisely yet lyrically written, The Fortune Men leaves a mark and much to think about regarding race, the search for justice, and colonization, among many other important issues. I received a gifted copy. Many of my reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com and instagram: www.instagram.com/tarheelreader

  4. 5 out of 5

    Henk

    Skillfully written and touching upon both racism and decolonization. I found the writing a bit meandering and despite the plight of the main character I wasn’t fully emotionally invested Nadifa Mohamed writes the story of Mahmood Mattan, wrongfully hanged for the alleged murder on a jewish shopkeeper. The Fortune Men brings us to a surprisingly multicultural Cardiff, with the Second World War and decolonisation close by. The books opens with Elizabeth ascending to the throne and quickly emerges us Skillfully written and touching upon both racism and decolonization. I found the writing a bit meandering and despite the plight of the main character I wasn’t fully emotionally invested Nadifa Mohamed writes the story of Mahmood Mattan, wrongfully hanged for the alleged murder on a jewish shopkeeper. The Fortune Men brings us to a surprisingly multicultural Cardiff, with the Second World War and decolonisation close by. The books opens with Elizabeth ascending to the throne and quickly emerges us in the Somali, Maltese and jewish communities. The distinctions between the various social strata is clear, Mahmood is for instance married to white Laura and she is shunned by her own brother for this. Jewish people meanwhile are subjected to pogrom like violence. The history of the characters (we also follow the murder victim) are in my view more interesting than the events in the main timeline, which meandering but surely lead to the conviction. Mahmood his history in the decolonisation of British Somaliland is fascinating, as are his broader wanderings through Africa and the travels a man called Berlin made are also almost too interesting to be true. The legal Q&A near the end of the book than again is rather a tiring format in the audiobook. In the end infidelity, machismo, petty crime and racism lead to Mahmood being so disliked that no one stands up for him and the fabled British justice ends up killing him. Only 46 years after the execution he is cleared of the blame, the first miscarriage of justice rectified by British courts. The last part of the book, being so up and close to someone at the brink of imminent dead, made me think a bit of the final 150 pages of The Mirror & the Light. In a sense the book, with its musings on what could have been and how different a life could have turned out is quite like an other Booker longlisted book: Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. In the end I found this a novel more to admire than to enjoy, if maybe I am not being the most ideal reader since I don't normally click that well with historical fiction.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Hugh

    Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 This was another book I knew nothing about at the time of the Booker longlist announcement, and it is quite an impressive book. The central events are real - the false conviction and execution of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali petty criminal for a murder of a shopkeeper in Cardiff's Tiger Bay in 1952, but there is quite a lot of creative fiction in the way the bare bones of the story have been fleshed out, not least the parts about Mattan's past in what was then Br Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 This was another book I knew nothing about at the time of the Booker longlist announcement, and it is quite an impressive book. The central events are real - the false conviction and execution of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali petty criminal for a murder of a shopkeeper in Cardiff's Tiger Bay in 1952, but there is quite a lot of creative fiction in the way the bare bones of the story have been fleshed out, not least the parts about Mattan's past in what was then British Somaliland (now Somalia). Several chapters focus on the victim's family, and her name has been changed which probably signals that there is more authorial invention at play here. Mattan had a Welsh wife, who never stopped campaigning to clear his name, and three sons. For a book of its length it is a surprisingly easy and quick read, with quite a lot of contemporary relevance in its portrayal of institutional racism.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Short-Listed for the Booker Prize 2021 Long Listed for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 The Fortune Men is a finely crafted work of historical fiction that examines the life of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali migrant to the UK who in 1952, was executed for a murder he did not commit. Nadifa Mohamed deftly depicts the interplay between Mattan’s inner world and his life in Tiger Bay a vibrant multiethnic seaport community in Cardiff where sailors from all over the world dock and sometim Short-Listed for the Booker Prize 2021 Long Listed for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 The Fortune Men is a finely crafted work of historical fiction that examines the life of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali migrant to the UK who in 1952, was executed for a murder he did not commit. Nadifa Mohamed deftly depicts the interplay between Mattan’s inner world and his life in Tiger Bay a vibrant multiethnic seaport community in Cardiff where sailors from all over the world dock and sometimes settle. Mattan left his home in Somalia at age 14, travelled to South Africa where he took a job on a ship and began a life as an adventurer, gambler and sometime petty thief. He married Laura Williams, a white working-class Welsh woman from Cardiff and they had three sons. In alternating chapters, Mohamed provides the back story of Mattan and the family of the murder victim, Violet Volacki. a Jewish shopkeeper, who suffered from a spinal disorder. Violet lived with her sister Diana, a resistance fighter and war widow and her niece Grace in an apartment next to the shop. On the night of the killing, a tall black man rang the shop doorbell. Violet opened the shop for him and was robbed and killed. The police arrested and charged Mattan even though Diana and Grace both testified that he was not the man they saw in front of the shop that evening. Despite a weak case based upon circumstantial evidence Mattan was convicted and hung. He was the last man to be hung in the UK. Nadifa Mohamed painted an in-depth sympathetic portrait of Mattan who was neither a saint nor a murderer. She did extensive research and included excerpts from the trial. She did and excellent job capturing the time, place and the rampant racism which initially limited his life chances and ultimately led to his wrongful conviction. In 1998, the Criminal Cases Review Commission overturned the conviction. The Fortune Men is a troubling and thought-provoking book. I recommend it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Eric Anderson

    How do we deal with the knowledge that an innocent man was executed by the state because of the colour of his skin? The response from many people in Britain would most likely be that this was a form of institutionalised racism which isn't found here today. Or you might find this fact sadly unsurprising given the way non-white men are still profiled and marginalized in this society – as depicted in “Open Water” by Caleb Azumah Nelson. In her novel “The Fortune Men” Nadifa Mohamed fictionalizes th How do we deal with the knowledge that an innocent man was executed by the state because of the colour of his skin? The response from many people in Britain would most likely be that this was a form of institutionalised racism which isn't found here today. Or you might find this fact sadly unsurprising given the way non-white men are still profiled and marginalized in this society – as depicted in “Open Water” by Caleb Azumah Nelson. In her novel “The Fortune Men” Nadifa Mohamed fictionalizes the case of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali-born merchant seaman who was arrested and executed for the murder of a shopkeeper in 1952 despite overwhelming evidence proving his innocence. With emotive detail she depicts the diverse community of Cardiff's Tiger Bay with its West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. Mahmood is a petty thief and a gambler who is far from saintly, but he's not a murderer. The question which drives this story isn't so much whether or not Mahmood can get a fair trial, but why was he persecuted and how are immigrants and non-white individuals still persecuted today? What's so powerful about Mohamed's style of writing is the intense way she depicts how Mahmood's perspective and state of being is shaped by the social attitudes around him. He has learned to physically shrink himself in different ways such as making himself invisible to avoid racist abuse or how his stomach has shrunk so that he won't feel hunger so acutely. At any moment he's aware that he might be the victim of vicious malice by a passing stranger because of his appearance and that there will be no recourse for the abuse which is inflicted upon him. He consciously avoids witnessing certain things because he knows “It doesn't pay to see something you're not meant to.” Mohamed also gives considerable space in this story to the perspective of a Jewish family who experience a tragic and violent loss which occurs while they're at home. The agonizing pain of their situation and the hard-won freedom they've found in this Welsh community after emigrating from Eastern Europe is sympathetically shown. The author evokes how these different factions of Tiger Bay live and work within the constrained limits of a larger power structure. Read my full review of The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed on LonesomeReader

  8. 4 out of 5

    Meike

    Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 An important story, but the narration is slightly flawed: Based on a real historical miscarriage of justice, Mohamed tells the story of Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan who was accused of a murder in Cardiff /Wales in the 1950s. Mattan was innocent, but became the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. The author, is British and was born in Somaliland, consulted the archives, the families that were affected and other people connected to the case to craft a stor Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 An important story, but the narration is slightly flawed: Based on a real historical miscarriage of justice, Mohamed tells the story of Somali sailor Mahmood Mattan who was accused of a murder in Cardiff /Wales in the 1950s. Mattan was innocent, but became the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. The author, is British and was born in Somaliland, consulted the archives, the families that were affected and other people connected to the case to craft a story that ponders the question who Mattan might have been, thus humanizing him: He is not the murderer he was made out to be, but he also wasn't a hero or a mere victim, but a three-dimensional human being with flaws and virtues. Employing flashbacks to Mattan's time in the Navy as well as his childhood, he becomes a man with a story who, tragically, believed for a very long time that the justice system will protect him, because he was innocent. Mohamed also manages to evoke a lively picture of Tiger Bay, the harbor area at the time. The whole endeavor isn't unlike the récit Kanaky about New Caledonian folk hero Joseph Andras, but it ventures more in the realm of cenventional fiction, the portrayal of the research itself is way less meta. All in all though, the beginning is too slow, the pacing is a little off, and sometimes the tale is stifled by too many details. Nonetheless, it's an interesting novel written by a talented new voice.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Paul Fulcher

    Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize Mahmood Hussein Mattan was a Somali, former merchant seaman, now living in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff and married to a local Welsh woman, Laura Williams. They had three children, although had separated in 1950, with Mattan moving in to a boarding house on the same street. In March 1952, Lily Volpert, a 42-year-old shopkeeper was murdered in her shop, her throat slashed. Some eyewitnesses suggested a Somali man had been seen in the area, and the police arres Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize Mahmood Hussein Mattan was a Somali, former merchant seaman, now living in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff and married to a local Welsh woman, Laura Williams. They had three children, although had separated in 1950, with Mattan moving in to a boarding house on the same street. In March 1952, Lily Volpert, a 42-year-old shopkeeper was murdered in her shop, her throat slashed. Some eyewitnesses suggested a Somali man had been seen in the area, and the police arrested Mattan, and despite the lack of any direct forensic evidence, and contradictions even in some of that which was circumstantial, he was convicted of the murder and executed in September of that year, the last hanging to take place in Cardiff Prison. The closing remarks of his own counsel didn't exactly help sway the jury, accusing his client of being a liar and worse ... from the press at the time: The conviction was the first case to be referred to the new Criminal Cases Review Commission, which began work in 1997, and was overturned in February 1998, Mattan now recognised as a victim of institutional racialism. Nadifa Mohamed has explained how she came across the story, in the Daily Mail of all places, in 2004, and then discovered her father knew Mattan, from when they both lived in Hull. The Fortune Men is her respectful, beautifully-written and thoroughly-researched fictionalisation of the case, one which focuses not only on the story of Mattan and his family, both before and after the crime, but also on the victim of the still unsolved murder and her loved ones (albeit Volpert is renamed Violet Volacki, I think because her story is more fictionalised). Mohamed's novel is rich with detail of Tiger Bay, a melting pot of different communities of sailors from all over the world who have settled there, albeit at times this felt a little forced (e.g. a cameo from a young Shirley Bassey, Tiger Bay's most famous resident). Here Mattan contrasts the community favourably to the rest of the city: On the 73 to the Royal Infirmary, he passes through Cardiff city centre, looking out the grimy window as if at the pictures; totally insulated from the war-beaten and monochrome misery. Its patched-up spires, wooden handcarts, haggard chickens and bloodied rabbits hanging from butchers' windows, mothers pushing baby carriages with fierce abandon, the broad ivory dome of the town hall blackened with soot, shop fronts drooping loose letters like earrings, teahouses with tuppence specials on buttered bread and a cuppa, boarded windows, fenced-off bombsites. It's a difficult place without money in your pocket; he'd be happy if they tore the whole place down like the council wants to do to the docks. He doesn't know how they can look down on Butetown with so little to show for themselves. The Bay emerges out of the industrial fog and sea mist like an ancient fossilised animal stepping out of the water. You might walk along the docks and find sailors carrying parrots or little monkeys in makeshift jackets to sell or keep as souvenirs, you can have chop suey for lunch and Yemeni saritrib for dinner, even in London you won't find the pretty girls — with a grandparent from each continent — that you just stumble into in Tiger Bay. The other Cardiff to him means that circuit between factory, home and pub that feels as leaden as the perambulations of a workhorse. He can't, no, won't be broken into that. Getting cheated by a pound every week by some crook that thinks you should be grateful for any kinds work at all. Sweeping, cleaning, not getting anywhere near the machines because then they'll have to pay you a man's wage. The shame of the canteens, men touching you like a slave on an auction block and asking if you're black cos you came out of your mother's arsehole, laughter sickening into a swell that brings bile to his throat. But others view it differently - this, the Inspector in charge of the case, making his bias clear: The younger men might get excited working the docks, but for him it was just depressing what the country had come to. Spending almost every night this past fortnight on the Bay had disheartened him; it was crawling with queers, darkies, hoodlums, communists, and traitors of every description. You could smell the dissolution in the air, from the oily stink of spices pumping out of the eating houses to the wisps of marijuana smoke coming from loud house parties. Was this the country that so many good men and boys had died for? 'The ports are our broken skin,' that's what his first Chief Constable had said, way back in the twenties, and it was still true. No one had listened when Wilson suggested outlawing mixed-race marriages then, and here lay the consequences. Footstep, clatter towards Powell and he raises his head from the floor. 'Sir, Monday is here to see you.' `Good, good, bring him in, and call in that useless Jamaican, Cover, He said that asylum case, Tahir Gass, was the Somali he saw outside the shop, didn't he?' `Yes, sir.' `Well, let's see if we can't jog his memory a little bit. Gass has already hot footed it on to a ship.' [Cover and Gass two real-life characters that were to play a key role in the case and the conviction.] Mattan is no saint, a gambler and petty thief, well known to the police (although he argues that the prejudice he faced drove him to this), so when he is arrested he struggles to take the charge of murder seriously, assuming they are more interested in the shoplifted coat he was carrying when arrested. But the police are determined to get a conviction - many crimes in the area are unsolved and assumed committed by sailors who have simply left on the next boat, and with a reward on offer there are no shortage of witnesses. Overall, this is a powerful story, well told. Although for personal taste, rather too conventional in literary terms. 3.5 stars - 3 for my personal appreciation, but 4 more generally. A short video with Mattan's family and friends about the case: https://vimeo.com/194263366 Interview with the author: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/20...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Michael Burke

    Nadifa Mohamed's Booker Prize-nominated "The Fortune Men" is based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder and executed in Cardiff, Wales in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali sailor and small-time thief who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong color of skin. Violet Volacki, a 40 year old Jewish shopkeeper, had her throat slit one night as her family was in the other room. There were no true witnesses, Mahmood had alibis, and any evidence against him Nadifa Mohamed's Booker Prize-nominated "The Fortune Men" is based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder and executed in Cardiff, Wales in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali sailor and small-time thief who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong color of skin. Violet Volacki, a 40 year old Jewish shopkeeper, had her throat slit one night as her family was in the other room. There were no true witnesses, Mahmood had alibis, and any evidence against him was as flimsy as it was convenient for the police. The opening of the book illustrates the port of Cardiff in colorful detail. Mahmood roams the streets and is portrayed as a mysterious and slightly unsavory character. Once he is arrested, though, we gravitate toward him. He is rebellious and snaps at the police-- he knows he is innocent, after all. At his core is the central belief that truth has to win out. Later, once he clearly sees the writing on the wall, he shows his concern and love for his three young sons when he makes his wife promise to nurture the account that their father had simply been lost at sea, thus sparing any further disgrace. In 1998, forty-six years after Mahmood's hanging, the British courts overturned his conviction. It was determined that the one witness putting him at the scene of the crime had been pressured by the police and lured by the promise of a reward. Mahmood's name was finally cleared, if decades too late for him and his family. "The Fortune Men" arrives with every historical spoiler alert. The man is executed in one of history's more notorious injustices. The magic of the book lies in Nadifa Mohamed's vivid depiction of the people whose lives were sucked into this tragedy. Thank you to Knopf Doubleday, NetGalley and Nadifa Mohamed for the advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Ushashi

    Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2021 The Fortune Men is a fictionalized account of a historical event of the 1950s. It tells the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali man in Cardiff, who was wrongly charged and hanged for murdering a white woman. This book recreates the colorful environment of Tiger Bay, which hosts people from all over the world. The story is told in present before and during Mahmood's conviction and in flashbacks to show his life. There are also parts of the victim's life and family, Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2021 The Fortune Men is a fictionalized account of a historical event of the 1950s. It tells the story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali man in Cardiff, who was wrongly charged and hanged for murdering a white woman. This book recreates the colorful environment of Tiger Bay, which hosts people from all over the world. The story is told in present before and during Mahmood's conviction and in flashbacks to show his life. There are also parts of the victim's life and family, which I believe are mostly fictional. This story is emotional in parts and humanizes Mahmood in an effective manner. His flawed character, his beliefs, and his innocence are brought out well and make it easy to sympathize with. The problem however is that I couldn't connect to the story. I kept waiting and waiting for the book to reach the main plot and it is about 100 pages too long. The prose is bogged down with too many details. While it is an important story to reach a wider audience, the pacing does not work in its favor.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    The outrageousness of the case against Mahmood Hussein Mattan still burns: In 1952, Mattan, a former merchant seaman, was arrested for slitting the throat of a shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales. His murder trial was riddled with lies and suppressed evidence. His own defense lawyer described him in court as a “semicivilized savage.” And then Mattan was hanged. For more than four decades afterward, the wheels of justice turned excruciatingly slowly. But in 1998, the Court of Appeal overturned Mattan’s co The outrageousness of the case against Mahmood Hussein Mattan still burns: In 1952, Mattan, a former merchant seaman, was arrested for slitting the throat of a shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales. His murder trial was riddled with lies and suppressed evidence. His own defense lawyer described him in court as a “semicivilized savage.” And then Mattan was hanged. For more than four decades afterward, the wheels of justice turned excruciatingly slowly. But in 1998, the Court of Appeal overturned Mattan’s conviction and awarded his family £725,000 as compensation. Although there can be no restitution for the unjustly executed man, his ordeal is the subject of an extraordinary novel that insists on his innate value and exposes the system that killed him. “The Fortune Men,” by a Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed, was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and is now finally available in the United States. As a work of historical fiction, Mohamed’s novel is equally informative and moving. While the details of her story are drawn from news accounts and court records, the interior portraits stem from her own deeply sympathetic imagination. The resulting confluence of fact and fiction provides a. . . . To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/...

  13. 5 out of 5

    Maxwell

    Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize Mahmood Mattan, a Somali man living in Wales, is accused of murdering a Jewish storekeeper named Violet Volacki in Cardiff, Wales in the 1950s. Starting on the day of the death of King George VI, the day Elizabeth II becomes Queen, we follow Mattan and various other characters up through murder and the fallout that comes from this event in a harrowing, emotional and gripping story. Nadifa Mohamed has actually pulled this story from history. Mattan was a real p Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize Mahmood Mattan, a Somali man living in Wales, is accused of murdering a Jewish storekeeper named Violet Volacki in Cardiff, Wales in the 1950s. Starting on the day of the death of King George VI, the day Elizabeth II becomes Queen, we follow Mattan and various other characters up through murder and the fallout that comes from this event in a harrowing, emotional and gripping story. Nadifa Mohamed has actually pulled this story from history. Mattan was a real person, and though she renames some characters and retells the story in novel form, it's a true crime being re-examined through the lens of the 21st century. You can look up the details of the crime and subsequent court case (though I wouldn't until you read this novel, if you're interested #spoilers). But what I will focus on instead is the emotion that this book conveys. Mohamed does an amazing job of putting you inside of Mattan's head. He is a complicated man with a love for the sea, but is tethered to this place that isn't quite his home by his love for his wife, Laura, and his three sons. There's some interesting conversation to be had about legacy and progeny, especially in contrast to the patriotism the royal family often brings out in people (though that interestingly has started to dwindle as of late). Mattan's identity as a person of color, but also an immigrant and someone who lives in a 'lesser' part of town, all contribute to his profiling in the legal process. Despite the fact that he speaks five languages, his 'broken' English is a disadvantage in the public's eyes. Mohamed doesn't explicitly call out these things but shows us, through Mattan's own eyes, the subjugation and scrutiny that outsiders face and the disastrous consequences of this judgments. In terms of the flow of the novel, the first half or so was a bit disjointed and I was struggling to see the purpose of the book. But the latter half really ties it together with a powerful ending that gave me goosebumps. While it may not be the strongest contender for the prize, it's a worthy addition to the Booker longlist and one I'm glad to have read!

  14. 5 out of 5

    Trudie

    Tiger Bay, Cardiff, 1952. A multi-cultural hub where Somali sailors drink Irish coffees, and "the housewives of St Mellons all coming to gasp at the street gamblers, half-caste children tumbledown bars with tumbledown women chatting outside".  Shopkeeper Violet Volacki is the victim of a brutal murder, killed while her oblivious family dine in the room next door. A fateful glimpse of a dark man with leather gloves and pointed shoes, "Grace thinks he looked Somali ...". Couple this with shoddy pol Tiger Bay, Cardiff, 1952. A multi-cultural hub where Somali sailors drink Irish coffees, and "the housewives of St Mellons all coming to gasp at the street gamblers, half-caste children tumbledown bars with tumbledown women chatting outside".  Shopkeeper Violet Volacki is the victim of a brutal murder, killed while her oblivious family dine in the room next door. A fateful glimpse of a dark man with leather gloves and pointed shoes, "Grace thinks he looked Somali ...". Couple this with shoddy police work with the ugly racism of the era and the stage is set for an egregious miscarriage of justice.  Based on the true story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, this novel leverages the facts of the case into a slightly verbose accounting. It is, however, worth pushing through some early difficulties and digressions to get to the last third, which focuses on Mattan's court case. If your defence begins with " What is he ? Half child of nature? Half semi-civilized savage?...." you might expect this doesn't end well.  It takes a skilled author to forge a believable backstory to real-life events and unfortunately, the voices of Mattan and Volacki lacked some veracity. The storytelling was a little heavy-handed on extraneous detail and meandering side trips manage to distance rather than intrigue. However, The Fortune Men  is a timely look at a historical injustice and while a non-fictional version might be preferable, this, in the end, does land an emotional wallop if you have the patience to get there.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Doug

    Had this been about 100 pages shorter, it possibly would have gotten a 4 star rating, as initially I found it rather intriguing. But the further along in it I went, the less interested I became, as it just seemed stuck on one track, reiterating the same points over and over. While well-written, and certainly a timely tragedy, I just really gave up caring about Mattan or his plight much - in fact I found the characters of the Jewish sisters (who rather abruptly disappear) of much more interest, a Had this been about 100 pages shorter, it possibly would have gotten a 4 star rating, as initially I found it rather intriguing. But the further along in it I went, the less interested I became, as it just seemed stuck on one track, reiterating the same points over and over. While well-written, and certainly a timely tragedy, I just really gave up caring about Mattan or his plight much - in fact I found the characters of the Jewish sisters (who rather abruptly disappear) of much more interest, and by the final four or five chapters I just wanted it to end. The other dispiriting factor, which knocked it down to a 3 star for me, was the proliferation of foreign words and phrases, only about half of which could be deciphered either by context, or through a kind translation by the author within reasonable proximity of their usage. A glossary certainly would have been a great help, but this seems to be a trend in recent Booker candidates and winners (cough, A Brief History of Seven Killings ... cough, cough). In one short section alone, the author uses the terms: abaar, gaajo, buranbur, miyi, malmal, faallow, dalmar, gu, and jamaca (none of which were included in my Kindle dictionary) ... I thought this prize was for books written in ENGLISH!! Finally, haven't a clue what the title means; I did a Kindle search on 'fortune' and the word is only used eight times in the book, and nowhere that would explicate the title. In my rankings, # 8 of the 10 longlisted titles I have read so far, and I don't see it making the shortlist.

  16. 5 out of 5

    John Banks

    Shortlisted 2021 Booker Prize. I picked this one up during a library browse, aware that it's longlisted for the Booker Prize. A strong historical novel set in 1950s Cardiff. A fictionalising of the historical murder of a Jewish shopkeeper (42, Lily Volpert who is renamed Violet in this fictionalised account) and Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali immigrant who is accused of, stands trial and is hung for this crime. The account of this miscarriage of justice is profoundly moving as you (through Mahm Shortlisted 2021 Booker Prize. I picked this one up during a library browse, aware that it's longlisted for the Booker Prize. A strong historical novel set in 1950s Cardiff. A fictionalising of the historical murder of a Jewish shopkeeper (42, Lily Volpert who is renamed Violet in this fictionalised account) and Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali immigrant who is accused of, stands trial and is hung for this crime. The account of this miscarriage of justice is profoundly moving as you (through Mahmood) experience the inevitability of this outcome due to the racist institutional machinery at work. Mahmood's efforts to stand tall and maintain his dignity in the midst of this grinding, brutal institutional racism and injustice are authentically realised and voiced. It's this characterisation that really gets the 4 stars from me. He's complex, not simply a victim but also a small-time criminal and gambling addict. There's poignant tragedy in his belief that the English justice system will come through with the truth and overturn the guilty verdict, even through the appeals process. There's also a wonderful account of his earlier life in Somaliland and in the merchant navy. The depiction of the streets, homes, bars and businesses of Cardiff's Tiger Bay, with its multicultural and ethnic richness and diversity is a strength. "The Bay emerges out of the industrial fog and sea mist like an ancient fossilised animal stepping out of the water. You might walk along the docks and find sailors carrying parrots or little monkeys in makeshift jackets to sell or keep as souvenirs, you can have chop suey for lunch and Yemeni saritrib for dinner, even in London you won't find the pretty girls — with a grandparent from each continent — that you just stumble into in Tiger Bay. The other Cardiff to him means that circuit between factory, home and pub that feels as leaden as the perambulations of a workhorse. He can't, no, won't be broken into that. Getting cheated by a pound every week by some crook that thinks you should be grateful for any kinds work at all. Sweeping, cleaning, not getting anywhere near the machines because then they'll have to pay you a man's wage. The shame of the canteens, men touching you like a slave on an auction block and asking if you're black cos you came out of your mother's arsehole, laughter sickening into a swell that brings bile to his throat." I also very much enjoyed the representation of Mahmood's strained relationship with his long suffering wife Laura. She's also a stand out character for me as she stoically supports him as best she can, even after they separate. And she continues the fight for justice after his death. Nadifia Mohamed includes passages early in the novel that sensitively convey the family life of the shopkeeper victim ( Violet Volacki). Powerful and well-written historical account of insitutionalised racism and those that are caught up in its inhumane systems. Worth noting that this case was finally overturned in February 1998.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Peter Boyle

    This Booker longlisted novel is a reimagining of a true story. Set in 1950s Cardiff, it examines the sad demise of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali seaman who was executed for a murder he didn't commit. And I'm afraid to say I didn't get along with it very well. The opening chapters are quite slow-paced, providing intricate backstories of Mahmood and the Volacki sisters, one of whom is killed. There is a real lack of momentum to this part of the book and I found myself struggling to continue with This Booker longlisted novel is a reimagining of a true story. Set in 1950s Cardiff, it examines the sad demise of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali seaman who was executed for a murder he didn't commit. And I'm afraid to say I didn't get along with it very well. The opening chapters are quite slow-paced, providing intricate backstories of Mahmood and the Volacki sisters, one of whom is killed. There is a real lack of momentum to this part of the book and I found myself struggling to continue with it. Once the crime had occurred and the police investigation began, I expected the story to perk up, but it still felt like wading through treacle. To my mind, there was a mountain of unnecessary detail, including histories of supporting characters and quite an amount of awkward expository dialogue. I must at least commend the author on her efforts to paint an authentic picture of post-war Cardiff, and her intentions to bring a little-known injustice to light. But for me, the pacing of the story is a real problem, and it is bogged down with superfluous information. In truth, I was relieved to finish it.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ari Levine

    Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize 3.5 stars, rounded slightly down. For me, this was the sixth and final title on this year's Booker shortlist. This is atmospheric social realism, and a clinical dissection of institutional racism in policing and criminal justice. Mohamed succeeds admirably in bringing to life the sights and textures of the multicultural dockside neighborhood of Tiger Bay in 1950s Cardiff. Where Violet Volacki, a Jewish shopkeeper in her 40s, was brutally murdered one night in Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize 3.5 stars, rounded slightly down. For me, this was the sixth and final title on this year's Booker shortlist. This is atmospheric social realism, and a clinical dissection of institutional racism in policing and criminal justice. Mohamed succeeds admirably in bringing to life the sights and textures of the multicultural dockside neighborhood of Tiger Bay in 1950s Cardiff. Where Violet Volacki, a Jewish shopkeeper in her 40s, was brutally murdered one night in her shop by an unknown assailant who was rumored to be Somali. Mohamed renders the victim and her surviving family with great compassion, especially for their own struggles with anti-Semitism and the heartbreak of wartime losses. But her real achievement is one of characterization. Mohamed vividly reconstructs the final year in the life of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali merchant seaman who married a Welsh woman, settled in Cardiff, and was the father of three young children. Born in a small village in British-occupied Somaliland, Mattan led a restless life, and had an insatiable addiction to gambling. When the novel begins, he is estranged from his family, living hand-to-mouth, and dabbling in petty crime. Only to be unjustly accused of Violet's murder on trumped-up charges and circumstantial evidence, relentlessly pursued by racist police and abetted by false witnesses, and undermined by his own inconsistent testimony. The novel's moving final third follows his trial and the resultant miscarriage of justice that made him the last man to have been hanged in Cardiff. Mohamed earns the reader's outrage without any recourse to sentimentality and manipulation. But the storytelling gears don't quite mesh, and took much too long to start turning. At times, the historical research feels thickly piled on, especially in the novel's exposition-heavy first third, which lurches clumsily. A skillful editor could have easily trimmed 50, even 100 pages, from this to reveal a tighter narrative that would have been more moving and direct. Thanks to Netgalley and Viking Books for a free ARC of this, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Chaikin

    My 6th from the Booker longlist is a clear winning novel. It seems to be universally liked. So it was weird that I struggled at first, in the gritty noir-ish, depressing opening - it was just a lot for me. But I found my pace and this is a terrific thing. The novel is based on the true story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somaliland immigrant in Cardiff, who was executed for a murder he did not commit in 1952, care of a horrible trial where his own lawyer called him a savage in court. It has a dark opening My 6th from the Booker longlist is a clear winning novel. It seems to be universally liked. So it was weird that I struggled at first, in the gritty noir-ish, depressing opening - it was just a lot for me. But I found my pace and this is a terrific thing. The novel is based on the true story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somaliland immigrant in Cardiff, who was executed for a murder he did not commit in 1952, care of a horrible trial where his own lawyer called him a savage in court. It has a dark opening, but it becomes something beautiful. Mohamed transforms for us a flawed and sketchy, but innocent, Mattan into someone warm, human, and fascinating, all without changing his character. He is ultimately very graceful in the face of the unfathomable. ----------------------------------------------- 55. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed published: 2021 format: 372-page hardcover acquired: September read: Oct 24 – Nov 8 time reading: 10:23, 1.7 mpp rating: 4 ½ locations: Cardiff & Somaliland about the author: Somali-British author born in 1981 in Hargeisa, Somaliland, and moved to London in 1986.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dwayne

    I keep making the case that book prizes are necessary as they introduce me to authors and books I probably would never have heard of otherwise. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed is another one of those books. Shortlisted for last year's Booker prize it tells the true-life story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who, in the 1950's, was wrongly accused of killing a white woman in Wales. Mattan wasn't a saint, and the book makes that very clear, but what is so shocking is how quickly they were wil I keep making the case that book prizes are necessary as they introduce me to authors and books I probably would never have heard of otherwise. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed is another one of those books. Shortlisted for last year's Booker prize it tells the true-life story of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who, in the 1950's, was wrongly accused of killing a white woman in Wales. Mattan wasn't a saint, and the book makes that very clear, but what is so shocking is how quickly they were willing to pin a murder on him with so little evidence. Without pointing fingers or placing blame, Mohammed shows us how, through racism and a deeply flawed legal system, this was all possible. The book is deeply moving and is a testament to her talent as a writer. It was a little long in parts, but I appreciated what was done within its pages. By shining a light on a terrible moment in history, I find the novel to be necessary and important.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    Your brothers send their greetings and wish me to tell you that they have put in a bid to win the first cinema concession in Hargeisa. I do not know if it will be granted to them, or to one of those cut-throats on the other side of the ditch, but if you have anything to contribute, manshallah, otherwise I will tell them it is impossible. Some of these sailors return with such good fortune, son, and I hope that one day it will be you stepping out of a car with your suitcases and children and happ Your brothers send their greetings and wish me to tell you that they have put in a bid to win the first cinema concession in Hargeisa. I do not know if it will be granted to them, or to one of those cut-throats on the other side of the ditch, but if you have anything to contribute, manshallah, otherwise I will tell them it is impossible. Some of these sailors return with such good fortune, son, and I hope that one day it will be you stepping out of a car with your suitcases and children and happy wife. The Fortune Men is based on a true story: In 1952, a Somali transplant to Cardiff — married to a local white woman and father to her three sons — was wrongfully charged with murdering a shopkeeper. Known to area police as a shiftless gambler and a thief, this one-time merchant seaman, Mahmood Mattan, was an easy target for the cops in this rowdy port town to frame; and with an all-white jury and witness testimony swayed by significant reward money, it’s easy to make the connection between systemic racism and the little value given to this Black man’s life. Author Nadifa Mohamed, herself a transplant from Somalia who grew up in Britain (and whose father apparently knew Mahmood Mattan), stuffs this novel with period detail in an effort to bring this historical footnote to life, but I found it all a little clunky; there’s too much detail about too many peripheral characters and I never found myself quite connecting with Mattan. I am glad to have learned the history but this wasn’t a terribly successful novel for me (but as it has been shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker Prize, who am I to judge?) Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms. Adjusting his homburg hat — the hat his mother-in-law says reminds her of funerals — low over his eyebrows, Mahmood realizes that there are too many people he doesn’t want to see on the street: the Nigerian watchmaker chasing after a watch he’d snuck out of his pocket, the lanky Jewish pawnbroker who had taken in his bedclothes when he’d had nothing else to pawn, that Russian woman from one of the cafés who he both wants to see and dreads seeing. He takes a deep breath and steps out. From the beginning, we’re not really meant to like Mahmood: we learn immediately that he’s delinquent in support payments to the wife who has kicked him out, he’s a thief, a gambler, a layabout, a womaniser. But even so, when the police finger him for a murder — based mostly on vague reports of a Somali being seen in the area that night — the reader does hope that the wheels of justice will eventually turn in Mahmood’s favour. The story carries Mahmood from boarding house to police station, jail, and then to trial — and for the most part, this is interesting. But along the way, Mohamed distracts the reader from Mahmood’s fate by inserting too many of the “colourful” facts she must have learned in her research of the times: Mahmood meets a Jamaican pimp in prison who talks about being picked up by upperclass white couples who wanted him to have sex with the wife while the husband watched; he talks with his Somali friend “Berlin” and learns that he got that nickname after being tricked by some Germans into becoming a specimen in a type of travelling anthropological zoo; Mahmood remembers the bacchanalian ritual at sea that saw someone dressed as King Neptune initiating the “Pollywogs” upon crossing the equator; there are many scenes from Mahmood’s childhood in Somalia and we learn the history of control of that country switching back and forth between the British and the Italians; we even spend quite a lot of time from the perspective of the (soon to be murdered) Jewish shopkeeper and her family, telling of how the deceased’s sister joined the WAAF after Kristallnacht and her experiences manning barrage balloons. All interesting enough, I suppose, but these details didn’t add much to Mahmood’s story for me. His life was, is, one long film with mobs of extras and exotic, expensive sets. Long reams of film and miles of dialogue extending back as he struts from one scene to another. He can imagine how his movie looks even now: the camera zooming in from above on to the cobblestone prison yard and then merging into a close-up of his thoughtful, upturned face, smoke billowing out from the corner of his dark lips. A colour film, it must be that. It has everything: comedy, music, dance, travel, murder, the wrong man caught, a crooked trial, a race against time and then the happy ending, the wife swept up in the hero’s arms as he walks out, one sun-filled day, to freedom. The image stretches Mahmood’s mouth into a smile. I didn’t know how Mahmood’s story ended before I read this book, so this did have some narrative tension for me; I just got a bit impatient with the extraneous bits. This may have worked better for me as nonfiction.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Katie Lumsden

    A really powerful book – certainly one I'd recommend. A really powerful book – certainly one I'd recommend.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Pool

    Synopsis This is a novel of historical fiction whose author, born in Hargeisa, Somaliland, has picked up a well known criminal case (from 1952) centred on Mahmood Hussein Mattan (known as “The Ghost”, and also as ‘Moody’) , also from Hargiesa. There’s a lot of detail on Mahmood Mattan available of the internet, and Nadifa Mohamed provides a brief precis of the history of his criminal case in an afterword. A newspaper clipping from 1952 is also copied. Set in Cardiff, the pulse of the city as a majo Synopsis This is a novel of historical fiction whose author, born in Hargeisa, Somaliland, has picked up a well known criminal case (from 1952) centred on Mahmood Hussein Mattan (known as “The Ghost”, and also as ‘Moody’) , also from Hargiesa. There’s a lot of detail on Mahmood Mattan available of the internet, and Nadifa Mohamed provides a brief precis of the history of his criminal case in an afterword. A newspaper clipping from 1952 is also copied. Set in Cardiff, the pulse of the city as a major shipping post for trade across the world, is well conveyed. Mattan is part of a Somali community, while Nigerians, Maltese and Jewish people have also built long standing communities in the city and around the docks. Relations between them all, and the Welsh, are rarely harmonious, and the sense is one in which not only verbal abuse, but physical violence is often only a street away. Problems with acceptance and genuine integration are articulated by Mahmood with both regret and anger (not surprisingly when he is described as “a semi - civilized savage”). Ironically he mentions Sylvia Pankhurst, and her “adoption” by Haile Selassie as a rare example of what might be possible. Mohammed is convincingly portrayed, neither as a saint, nor as outright villain, as a cursory knowledge of him might indicate. In his own words: “a chancer, a fighter, a rebel” (319) The narrative concerns the prosecution of Mattan for an alleged murder, the police investigation and the resulting court proceedings. It’s a classic court drama in which the evidence presented, and its interpretation, is suitably opaque. The close knit victim family (the fictionalised Volacki’s), and also Mattan’s family (wife Laura) are sensitively and convincingly portrayed through their respective grief. In addition to the main sections set in Cardiff there’s some great supporting chapters on family histories, and most notably Mahmood’s father Hussein, and his resistance to British rule (passed on to his son!), in British Somaliland. If I was being critical I would say that this background does sometimes read more an a stand alone than as something integrated into the evolving 1952 story of Mahmood. One message from the story that impacted strongly on me is how dangerous it might be to offer a monetary reward (however well intended) for information provided. Thinking logically this is bound to result in some very dubious sources and witnesses. Questions and Gripes I have one major gripe/criticism and that is on page 149 and the description of “V2 bombs whinnying down” For a well-researched book its plain wrong to refer to the V2 bomb, in Cardiff? and in 1940? My question is a perennial of mine; the book title. Why fortune? And why men (plural?) Author background & Reviews I came about this book as it has been long listed for the 2021 Booker prize for fiction. It is Mohamed’s third novel and follows Black Mamba Boy, shortlisted for the 2010 Dylan Thomas Prize, and long-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction, and The Orchard of Lost Souls, also longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Nadifa Mohamed’s own father was a sailor in the merchant navy (a clear comparison with Mattan) Recommend Historical fiction, criminal investigation and court room drama- What’s not to like? Commenting on the Booker long list, one of the judges, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams said: “The other thing about a Booker winner is that it ought to be a book that people enjoy reading, call me old-fashioned if you like. You do want something that will keep people turning the pages”. It’s a book I will most definitely recommend to friends, and it does meet the Archbishop Williams criteria.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Neil

    For me, this was book 13 of the 2021 Booker longlist i.e. I have now read the full list. This is a powerful way to finish reading that longlist. It is a fictionalised version of a true story about injustice, so you know going into it that it is likely to make you a bit angry and a bit sad. I’m not 100% sure how much of the impact of the book comes from its writing and how much comes from it being based on actual events. You can read the basics of the true story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan here: http For me, this was book 13 of the 2021 Booker longlist i.e. I have now read the full list. This is a powerful way to finish reading that longlist. It is a fictionalised version of a true story about injustice, so you know going into it that it is likely to make you a bit angry and a bit sad. I’m not 100% sure how much of the impact of the book comes from its writing and how much comes from it being based on actual events. You can read the basics of the true story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahmood.... He was the last man to be hanged for a crime he did not commit I found the opening section of the book a bit confusing because it rapidly introduces a series of characters and viewpoints, but this quickly settles down to focus on two viewpoints: Mahmood (a victim of injustice) and Violet Volacki’s family (Violet being the murder victim, here sensitively re-named from Lily Volpert at the request of a family member). The fictional element of the book comes largely from the backstories for the main characters that show us how Mahmood came from Somalia to Tiger Bay in Cardiff, Wales and show us the family life of the murder victim and the impact the murder has on that family. Looking back on the book after finishing it, it does feel a bit as though the Volacki family element rather shrinks into the background as the story progresses and the focus becomes the character of Mattan, but I guess that makes sense given that the book is largely about that major miscarriage of justice. This is a book that it is hard to read without an emotional reaction. There’s both the disastrously wrong conviction and the inherent racism of the post-war period in the UK. Both make you angry. It is sensitively written and well researched (as far as I can tell) so it makes for an engrossing read.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)

    A very competent novel that just wasn’t for me. I feel kind of like the people who had no interest in watching the Titanic movie because they knew how it ended; I knew how—and how tragically—this one ended, and 108 pages in I hadn’t gotten invested in the story enough to follow it all the way there.

  26. 5 out of 5

    David

    The Fortune Men approaches the broader subject of the Somali immigrant experience in Europe by telling the story of one particular young man and the tragic injustices he suffered in Wales sixty years ago. It is an interesting aspect of history about which I knew almost nothing before reading the novel. Unfortunately, the book itself isn't nearly as compelling as it could have been, and the circumstances of Mahmood Mattan's life and death are presented here in a manner which saps them of their in The Fortune Men approaches the broader subject of the Somali immigrant experience in Europe by telling the story of one particular young man and the tragic injustices he suffered in Wales sixty years ago. It is an interesting aspect of history about which I knew almost nothing before reading the novel. Unfortunately, the book itself isn't nearly as compelling as it could have been, and the circumstances of Mahmood Mattan's life and death are presented here in a manner which saps them of their inherent energy. The writing is florid. There are times when the exuberant language works but, more often than not, it generally weighs things down. Nadifa Mohamed provides her reader with endless details: names, places, and anecdotes that go nowhere and simply act as filler. The narrative is freighted with exposition which is tucked into monologue, dialogue, police interrogation, arguments, flirtations, and sales transactions. A character cannot buy a drink or smoke a cigarette without also providing backstory to the bartender or a history lesson to the struck match. Other reviewers have commented on the difficulties they had in getting through the book and I think these issues are largely responsible for that. Despite lots of first-person passive voice, this often felt like a tale told by an outsider. While this observational stance allows the reader to watch everything unfold from a safe distance, it also limits one's connection to characters and their situations. I did not have much skin in the game and I did not find Mahmood Hussein Mattan as sympathetic as I should have. There are a few other matters of craft which did not help. What follows are examples that will only be of interest to those of an analytical frame of mind; all others should turn back now. There is/are: - A frustrating reversion to specific phrases which only weakens the story-telling: ...Mahmoud throws the espresso down his throat..." (p. 3) "Berlin's eyes glint and he pauses to throw an espresso down his throat..." (p. 35) and "...his pink nipples lewd and raspberry-like against his snowy skin." (p. 15) "...the large raspberry-like nipple receding slowly from his view." (p. 84) - Anachronistic language: a racially-based joke that hinges upon the phrase "been there, done that", for example. - Frequent use of idioms that sound suspiciously modern, like "Go for it!" and "I don't give a flying fuck!" - Contradictions: "Berlin had said on his last visit that Ramadan was due to begin at the next new moon..." followed by It's a full moon, so tomorrow will be the start of Ramadan." A stronger editor would have picked up on a lot of this. And I am certain that less detail-oriented readers will not be bothered. If my criticisms strike you as pedantic, go ahead and give this book a try. We can at least agree that Mattan's story should be more widely known.

  27. 4 out of 5

    James

    “Life. Life. It is so simple and beautiful.”” As Halloween approaches, when that boundary between the living and the dead is said to enter a state most porous, opening up for the latter to walk—hover?—more freely, it surprised me to find how well “The Fortune Men” fit the occasion, not least due to Nadifa Mohamed’s impressive necromantic efforts restoring such evocative life to Mahmood Mattan. For as a historico-fictional reimagining of the actual failure of justice during the British fifties lea “Life. Life. It is so simple and beautiful.”” As Halloween approaches, when that boundary between the living and the dead is said to enter a state most porous, opening up for the latter to walk—hover?—more freely, it surprised me to find how well “The Fortune Men” fit the occasion, not least due to Nadifa Mohamed’s impressive necromantic efforts restoring such evocative life to Mahmood Mattan. For as a historico-fictional reimagining of the actual failure of justice during the British fifties leading to the wrongful execution of suave Somali sailor (can you already detect that whiff of institutional racism preceding the thing?), it would seem an unlikely candidate next to such more conventional choices as, say, Dracula. Where be the pumpkins? the witches? the seasonal colour palette instead of this blinding teal? But Mohamed, prose nimble, sneaks in subtle nods like her description of Mahmood’s witnesses’ shoddy reconstruction of his character as “a man — no, a Frankenstein’s monster.” Or her passing observation that “all [Mahmood’s solicitor] needs is a cape and fangs and he’ll look like,” there it is, “Dracula himself.” Set in the melting pot—cauldron?—of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, in the fading echoes of King George’s death’s wireless announcement, Mohamed’s novel changes masks with chameleonic skill between the different characters spinning around Mahmood’s busy orbit. From Berlin the bartender and Mahmood’s friend to Violet the Jewish shopkeeper (renamed from Lily Volpert) whose murder would be dumped at Mahmood’s feet, Diana the bereaved sister to Powell the corrupt detective nursing delusions of racist grandeur, they’re granted dramatic character moments during uninterrupted stage time in single, unbroken paragraphs that I admire anyone for attempting. All paling, however—ghostlike, so effective was his reanimation—next to Mahmood’s sheer liveliness, whose rapscallion’s personality dances forth from Mohamed’s loving words, whose artful dodginess ends up being greatly endearing, plus greatly painful when the gravity of Mahmood’s hopeless prospects start sinking in proper, his mood dropping from untouchably playful to uncharacteristic dread. At the rotting core of Mahmood’s misfortune, emitting wafts of the aforementioned thing as she shows how misplaced Mahmood’s almost-Panglossian faith in general society can be (insofar as events turning out favourably for him after trial) when so much of it runs on bad faith, Mohamed almost singlemindedly lays bare all dimensions of racism. Warts and all, we see again the structural kind in how the justice system fails Mahmood; the historical with Diana’s Jewish perspective, Hitler driving her to enlist; the unthinkingly petty when one of the witnesses testifies against Mahmood because she doesn’t like him; the breathtakingly visceral when along comes the scant metaphor of “men touching you like a slave on an auction block and asking if you’re black cos you came out of your mother’s arsehole.” A wonder, then, that Mahmood is able to keep his hat on, remaining magnetically cool for the majority of the novel, the dynamic language of which Mohamed manages to keep likewise forceful, attuned to the specific colloquialisms down to the untranslated Arabic words that—even to my total lack of comprehension during the reading—lend her writing an unforgettable linguistic richness. “There’s a special train waiting for us and on the platform there are zebras, elephants, monkeys, Asians, Africans, Native Americans, Australians gathered together as if on Judgment Day.” This excerpt actually doesn’t concern Mahmood, but occurs earlier on in the story as part of Berlin’s (absorbing) perspective deserving to be highlighted not only because of the weird though probably justifiable grouping of Australians with these social outcasts, but because of how their juxtaposition to the animals, more than the dehumanisation of racism, in this carnivalesque presentation demonstrates racism as pure spectacle. And this—the idea of spectacle—brings me to another layer of richness to Mohamed’s imagination introducing film as the flipped lens through which Mahmood makes beautiful sense of the world, of life’s mundanities—those “waxy leaves of an ivy vine snaking up from the sterile ground, a spider twitching on its bejewelled web”—become newly precious in the context of his inevitable death.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Zainab

    “Standing there, shoulders sagging, in the Law Courts, in Cardiff, in Bilad al-Welsh, he feels the blows of their lies like a man shot with arrows. They are blind to Mahmood Hussein Mattan and all his real manifestations: the tireless stoker, the poker shark, the elegant wanderer, the love-starved husband, the soft-hearted father.” Most readers will know what’s coming in this real-life tragically unjust tale of Mahmood Mattan – and it’s proven to be both a captivating and excruciating journey to “Standing there, shoulders sagging, in the Law Courts, in Cardiff, in Bilad al-Welsh, he feels the blows of their lies like a man shot with arrows. They are blind to Mahmood Hussein Mattan and all his real manifestations: the tireless stoker, the poker shark, the elegant wanderer, the love-starved husband, the soft-hearted father.” Most readers will know what’s coming in this real-life tragically unjust tale of Mahmood Mattan – and it’s proven to be both a captivating and excruciating journey to the end. I felt something of the seasickness that Mattan lives and relives, and frankly I was in pieces after the epilogue. Nadifa Mohamed paints a colourful image of Tiger Bay (Butetown) in Cardiff of the early 1950s, bustling with Somali and Yemeni sailor communities who are at the fore of this novel. It’s a community she is not completely new to: her debut, Black Mamba Boy, was based on her father’s life who was a sailor in the merchant navy. This time, though, we are thrust into the historic streets of Cardiff Docks to witness a false accusation play out at an unbelievable pace leading to the last execution ever to take place in Cardiff Prison. Mahmood Mattan is full of imperfections, but his humour and zeal for life make him increasingly endearing as the story unfolds. Water flows through this novel as Mattan reaches new spiritual heights against his will. Racism marks every twist and turn, from the prosecution to the defence. Parallel to his experiences is a window into the Jewish family at the heart of the murder. It is an almost unbreakable female trio, centred on the sweet and diligent shop owner Violet Volacki. As Mattan’s character reflects, their fates become intertwined. “You don’t write my history…” Mattan tells the detective on his case. Yet it is clear that Nadifa Mohamed has become somewhat of a detective through the writing of this novel, pouring over archives and conducting interviews to reach the truth (though some names have been changed and the account is fictionalised). That Mohamed has written this history, his story, after decades of family efforts to clear Mattan’s name, proves that truth can prevail and legacies can be rewritten. A very deserving candidate for the Booker Prize of 2021.

  29. 5 out of 5

    ♥ Sandi ❣

    4 stars Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Publishing Group for a chance to read and review this book. Published Dec 14, 2021. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021. This was a book that I needed to spend a little time thinking about after having read it. At first finishing it I was not sure that I even liked it. At the very start of the book it was very difficult to get into the rhyme of the writing. I felt it was really fragmented and was making no sense. To make matters worse there seemed to be a l 4 stars Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Publishing Group for a chance to read and review this book. Published Dec 14, 2021. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021. This was a book that I needed to spend a little time thinking about after having read it. At first finishing it I was not sure that I even liked it. At the very start of the book it was very difficult to get into the rhyme of the writing. I felt it was really fragmented and was making no sense. To make matters worse there seemed to be a lot of foreign words - without further explanation - solidly spread throughout the pages. However, having thought about it for a few days I more fully appreciated the story. The meat of the story is about a Somali man who is accused of murdering a Jewish woman shop owner. He is a petty criminal, but not a murderer. It is 1952 in Cardiff Wales. He puts his faith in the system, knowing he is innocent, but 'conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty' run high against him. Is the truth enough to save him from the gallows? This was a first read for me by Mohamed. Once I got on to her style of writing I became more comfortable with the story. I did feel that there was way too much foreign language in the book - words that did not have any translation - which for me is very distracting. A few foreign words followed by their explanation is fine, but this book took quite a liberty in that area for being a book targeting an English speaking populace. I find it hard to believe that being Somalian the author would write a book in her native language with as many untranslated English words in it as she put untranslated Somalian/Hindu words in this English novel.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Claire

    The Fortune Men surprised me a bit by being quite a moving novel. This story about a murder in Cardiff in 1952, is really a story about pervasive and institutionalised racism. Although in the first quarter it felt a little disorganised, the threads that are introduced in this early stage of the novel leap to life and it becomes immensely compelling and tense, albeit hopeless feeling. Mohamed’s story does so much more than shine light on the immigrant experience in mid-century Britain, it explore The Fortune Men surprised me a bit by being quite a moving novel. This story about a murder in Cardiff in 1952, is really a story about pervasive and institutionalised racism. Although in the first quarter it felt a little disorganised, the threads that are introduced in this early stage of the novel leap to life and it becomes immensely compelling and tense, albeit hopeless feeling. Mohamed’s story does so much more than shine light on the immigrant experience in mid-century Britain, it explores the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and most significantly, the frustration, rage, and obtainable it can provoke in its victims. This is a wrongful conviction not only built on the blindness of the system to justice, but on the lies of so many different members of a community. It’s seems to move inexorably, claustrophobically towards its conclusion. The characterisation of the flawed victim was a particular standout for me. Although not perfectly executed, I thought it was an original, interesting, affecting novel.

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