A searing yet lyrical, and uniquely British story, The Fortune Men re-creates the hope and raucous, fizzing diversity of immigration in post war Britain; the anger and horror of the story of a miscarriage of justice – and the complicated and nuanced story of Mahmood Mattan, the central character of Nadifa Mohamed’s book.
This is Mohamed’s third novel and is the only British entry to this year’s Booker Prize shortlist. I have to admit that her multi-layered re-telling of the experience of Mattan – a merchant seaman from what was then British Somaliland, who settled in the early 1950s melting pot of the docklands of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay – is intensely personal, for both Mohamed and for me. Her family and mine, and countless others from the colonial territories of British Somaliland and Yemen, and Maltese and Jews, travelled to lay down roots in a Britain that was just emerging from the victory and trauma of the Second World War. Tiger Bay became their refuge and home. From the opening chapters, Mohamed brings this unique melting pot to vivid life. In its milk bars, dance halls and warren like streets she conjures up the wildly romantic, pungent and intoxicating universe that was Cardiff’s docklands in 1950s where, like so many Black African Muslim men from Somaliland, Mattan met, fell in love with and married Laura.
Mohamed’s book is based upon, but fictionalises, the real life murder of a money lender, Lily Volpert (renamed Violet Volacki in the book) and the subsequent harrowing miscarriage of justice after he is wrongly convicted of her murder aided by the casual and instinctive racism of the police in 1950s Britain. But to cast The Fortune Men simply as a story of immigration, racism and injustice would be a grave disservice and simplification of a book that is so much more than that, with characters which are far more complex, nuanced and empathetic, starting with Mattan himself. Mohamed does him service by writing him an entirely believable way. In her hands, Mattan is not this one dimensional “victim” of injustice – he is a flawed, often shifty and not always a wholesome human being.
In Mohamed’s hands, Mattan is not an immigrant who comes to Britain and is made by the experience – instead he is already fully formed – and is able to weave his different perspectives and identities into and out of the kaleidoscope of Tiger Bay. This is also the real strength of this book. The Fortune Men recreates the uniquely British post-war story of how immigrants founded communities across the country that embedded themselves into the fabric of the cities and towns in which they settled. Cardiff, Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol and many more – communities which exist to this day. The very first article I ever wrote as I tried to find my way in British journalism in the early 1990s was on the Somali community in Tiger Bay. Mohamed’s book brought that experience back very vividly. The Fortune Men is both angry at the racial injustice in Mattan’s fate, and also profoundly empathetic and respectful of a society which was created by men like him here in Britain. In this chilling and powerful story we witness a superbly talented British writer cement herself as a gifted voice revealing a Britain whose vibrant and at times tragic story has all too often been rarely told with such impact and beauty. The Fortune Men deserves every success.