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The Fortune Men: A novel Kindle Edition
In Cardiff, Wales in 1952, Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali sailor, is accused of a crime he did not commit: the brutal killing of Violet Volacki, a shopkeeper from Tiger Bay. At first, Mahmood believes he can ignore the fingers pointing his way; he may be a gambler and a petty thief, but he is no murderer. He is a father of three, secure in his innocence and his belief in British justice.
But as the trial draws closer, his prospect for freedom dwindles. Now, Mahmood must stage a terrifying fight for his life, with all the chips stacked against him: a shoddy investigation, an inhumane legal system, and, most evidently, pervasive and deep-rooted racism at every step.
Under the shadow of the hangman's noose, Mahmood begins to realize that even the truth may not be enough to save him. A haunting tale of miscarried justice, this book offers a chilling look at the dark corners of our humanity.
“A potent, pointed novel . . . Mohamed is a big talent, and she’s only getting started.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Equally informative and moving . . . The immediate allure of the novel is the vibrancy of Mohamed’s prose, her ability to capture the complicated culture of Cardiff and the sound of tortured optimism. . . . The horrific finale of The Fortune Men is never in doubt, but for more than 200 pages Mohamed still creates a sharp sense of suspense by pulling us right into Mahmood’s world as his life tilts and then crashes. . . . There’s a natural grandeur to her portrayal of this ordinary man caught in the city’s gears. Readers will hear echoes of Dostoevsky and Kafka in her re-creation of this nightmare. . . . With The Fortune Men, Mohamed has given us a clear vision of so many victims caught in the maw of racist legal systems.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Brilliantly depicts the complexities of community within the Black diaspora . . . Mohamed balances colonial history and violence with the evocative interior lives of Mahmood and Violet Volacki. . . . After Mahmood’s arrest, the novel shifts its focus to the British criminal justice system, providing a visceral account of the protagonist’s carceral experience. . . . Mohamed manages such tender detail even while zooming out on the British prison and court systems more broadly.”—Nicole R. Fleetwood, The New York Times
“Searing . . . Mohamed maintains a high level of tension as the tragedy slowly unfolds. . . . This is a powerful portrayal of an innocent man trapped by a racist system that will resonate with readers familiar with such travesties of justice in the U.S.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Searing, affecting and distressingly relevant . . . The Fortune Men, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, manages an intimate presentation of Mattan’s experience. . . . In fictionalizing this story of a lethal miscarriage of justice, Somali-born British writer Nadifa Mohamed has crafted a mesmerizing novel that, notwithstanding its historical setting, has disconcerting resonance for the present.”—Steven W. Beattie, The Toronto Star
“The writing carries a depth of humanity that puts the reader right in the shoes of the characters — the clothes they wear, the streets they walk, the emotions they feel. . . . [The Fortune Men] is filled with the hope of how things should be and the truth of how things are. All of it, the life of Mahmood Mattan, the system convicting him of this murder, and the community that allows it, all brought painfully into focus with Mohamed’s unflinching and gifted prose.”—Urban Waite, San Francisco Chronicle
“[The Fortune Men] was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year, and it’s not hard to see why: It’s a riveting tale in which Mohamed brings to life a 1950s port city and the injustice that occurred there.”—Wadzanai Mhute, Oprah Daily
“Provocative and evocative . . . A memorable portrait . . . [The Fortune Men] is an intimate look at a man whose pride is seen as defiance and whose refusal to be demeaned proves dangerous to a Black man and a foreigner. . . . Mohamed vividly draws the brawling and diverse tough-luck world of the Cardiff docks.”—Stuart Miller, Boston Globe
“Riveting . . . Memorable . . . The Fortune Men is a sweeping indictment of British jurisprudence and the many forms prejudice can take. . . . Most poignant of all is the portrait of Mahmood, a proud Muslim who retains his hope and humanity even in the face of the most brutal of injustices.”—Michael Magras, Shelf Awareness
“The Fortune Men is that rare novel that breaks your heart and, in so doing, gives you life. Nadifa Mohamed is a revelation—she writes with the fierce compassionate lightning of a truth-teller, lays bare the ghastly colonial condition that afflicts so many of us, where truth cannot overcome injustice. If a novel can be an avenger then The Fortune Men is the one we've all been waiting for.”—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
“Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is a blues song cut straight from the heart. It tells about the unjust death of an innocent Black man caught up in a corrupt system. Nadifa’s masterful evocation of the full life of Mahmood Mattan, the last man executed in Cardiff for a crime he was exonerated for forty years later, is brought alive with subtle artistry and heartbreaking humanity. In one man’s life Mohamed captures the multitudes of homelands, dialects, hopes, and prayers of Somalis, Jews, Maltese and West Indians drawn in by the ships that filled Wales’ Tiger Bay in the 1950’s, all hoping for a future that eludes Mattan.”—Walter Mosley, author of Devil in a Blue Dress
“Heart-wrenching. . . . This powerful, deeply affecting exploration of mid-twentieth-century racism and other forms of prejudice has stark relevance today.”—Booklist
“A novel on fire, a restitution of justice in prose . . . The Fortune Men can be read as a comment on 21st-century Britain and its continued troubled legacy of empire, but also as a beautifully judged fiction in its own right—teeming with life, character and humour, and, particularly, evocative of place.”—Catherine Taylor, Financial Times
“Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men . . . is an elegant portrayal of life in the racial, cultural hub of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the early Fifties. Eschewing a simple morality play for complex vivid characters, it centers on the plight of Mahmood Mattan, who finds himself in the shadow of the hangman’s noose for a murder he didn’t commit.”—Gary Younge, The New Statesman, “Books of the year”
“A miraculous feat . . . [Mohamed] brings magic to her project, achieving in fiction what no historical account could match. . . . In a reversal of the western perspective, Mohamed shows us Britain through the eyes of this outsider, the Black African, the Muslim. It’s an eye-opening angle of vision and an unforgettable one. . . . Mahmood Mattan has been rescued. Given new life, he emerges from the pages of The Fortune Men as a full-blooded literary victim-hero with all the complexity that such a status tends to require.”—Claudia Peck, Star Tribune
“Based on a real-life case from 1952, The Fortune Man is a masterpiece in storytelling. It tells of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Lily Volpert and was one of the last men to be executed in Wales. Mohamed’s ability to examine the blistering racial injustices of the time is sobering and immense.”—Eva Waite-Taylor, The Independent
“Utterly gripping . . . Nadifa Mohamed’s fictional account of this real-life miscarriage of justice has quite rightly been longlisted for the Booker Prize. . . . She tackles this largely forgotten story with skill and empathy.”—Alex Peake-Tomkinson, Prospect
“An engrossing and tense story . . . the senses of loss and cruelty are palpable . . . [The Fortune Men is] an intimate personal portrait with a broader message on the mistreatment of migrants.”—Kirkus Reviews
“[The Fortune Men is] unbearably wrenching, as racism, inept policing and the lure of a cash reward from the victim’s family combine to corner the father-of-three in a monstrous web of injustice. . . . Mohamed makes the outrage at the book’s heart blazingly unignorable by inhabiting Mattan’s point of view, a bold endeavour pulled off to powerful effect.”—Anthony Cummins, Daily Mail U.K.
“The Fortune Men . . . confirms [Mohamed] as a literary star of her generation. . . . When Mohamed’s prose – simple and full of soul – illuminates him, Mahmood emerges as a beacon of humour, hope and endurance.”—Ashish Ghadiali, The Observer
“A writer of great humanity and intelligence. Nadifa Mohamed deeply understands how lives are shaped both by the grand sweep of history and the intimate encounters of human beings.”—Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire
“The Fortune Men describes how innocence is forced to justify itself before gross injustice. A novel of tremendous power, compassion and subtlety, it feels unsettlingly timely.”—Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger
“Nadifa Mohamed just gets better and better. Long regarded as one of our most promising young novelists, she has fully arrived with The Fortune Men. Chilling and utterly compelling, it shines an essential light on a much-neglected period of our national life.”—Sathnam Sanghera, author of EmpireLand: How Modern Britain is Shaped by its Imperial Past
About the Author
--This text refers to an alternate kindle_edition edition.
- ASIN : B09BLT361C
- Publisher : Knopf (December 14, 2021)
- Publication date : December 14, 2021
- Language : English
- File size : 2738 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 332 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #95,606 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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I'm hoping this wins the Booker Prize. Very easy to see why it's longlisted.
I spent my teenage years in the former steel town of Pittsburgh in the 1980s and I vividly remember its sluggish rivers, the rusted factories, some still belching smoke and fire into the hazy sky, and the neighborhoods we held our breath to drive through because they smelled so strongly of chemicals. There’s no wonder that Mohamed’s industrial porn descriptions of Cardiff resonated so hard with me.
“He enjoys watching the nightly, industrial spectacle: the dirty seawater appearing to catch fire as vats of rippled, white hot furnace slag from the East Moors Steelworks tip into the lapping evening tide.”
As a mid-century port city, Cardiff is incredibly diverse, with intermingling populations of Jews and Jamaicans, East and West Africans, Arabs and Brits and Indians - gambling, drinking, raising families, celebrating holidays, praying in mosques and churches, setting off to sea. It’s a difficult, often dirty life, and no one comes through the narrative unscathed. Indeed, it’s an indictment of our present day society that so much of the anti-Black racism of the 1950s still exists today, down to the Black and brown people who crowd the prisons in the UK and America.
Mohamed’s goal is to tell the human story: not the shocking headlines about an illiterate petty thief who lies and cheats and is an easy target for the police to accuse of murder... but the person behind the spectacle, the loving father of 3 young sons, the beloved husband of a Welsh woman, the adventurous charming devil-may-care polyglot, the style hound, the terribly young man whom the British justice system fatally fails. Indeed, it is Mattan’s audacity and fearlessness that fell him in the end. As Mohamed says in an interview, the British state indicts him because he is undaunted by their power and authority. He claims a fierce equality with his former colonizers and for that “he had to be crushed.”
I am a huge fan of litanies, and Mohamed’s are pure joy to read:
“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.”
She scatters these lists throughout the novel, creating a visceral atmosphere and setting for the story.
Mohamed is no less skilled with deepening our understanding of characters -- from major ones like Violet, the murder victim, a middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, Diana, her grieving sister, and Berlin, who is Mattan’s hero and champion even as his case falters -- to minor characters like Tahir, a sailor gone mad with electro-shock therapy, and Taiaiake, a Mohawk from Canada from whom we hear the hateful history of human zoos in Europe. And of course, Mattan is at the center of this story, his reckless sullen demeanor concealing what the reader comes to understand as fear, pride, a language barrier, and his utter disbelief in the miscarriage of justice taking place before his eyes.
The story picks up speed as it goes, and travels far and wide, in geography and time. We go back to Mattan’s childhood, meeting his elderly disabled mother “with her albatross love,” and hear about his travels down east and southern Africa, starting at the tender age of 14. His extraordinary sailing adventures, over all the seven seas, take place in his early twenties, and it’s both hard and tragic to recall that Mattan was only 28 when he was killed by the British government.
Mohamed speaks of her love for the collaborative nature of semi-autobiographical work and I love the idea of the writer communing with the past through archives, research, travel, and interviews. Ultimately, it is an act of imagination that summons the story, and in this regard, Mohamed does not disappoint. The Fortune Men is a heartbreaking and sensate personal story that reaches across continents, across time, and across history, becoming a tale for all time.
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 or 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.
I received an advance review copy for free, and I am leaving this review voluntarily.
Top reviews from other countries
The story ought to be heartbreaking. Mahmood Mattan, a Muslim accused of murdering a Jewish shopkeeper, becomes immersed in a punitive whirlpool which even he, a strong young shipworker with a penchant for gambling, does not have the strength or the good fortune to escape from. His fate is sealed partly thanks to his pride, his misplaced faith in higher powers and, overwhelmingly, because he is a victim of a poisonous racism in Britain in the 1950s. As a tragedy told in a linear fashion, it could have been remarkable.
Regrettably, the narrative is hampered by too much padding and a lack of focus on the central character. The crime Mahmood Mattan is accused of is not committed until 50 pages in, and even after that there are innumerable flashbacks to the earlier lives of not only the victim but also her family members. (The most ironic flaw of this novel is that the chapters from the victim's sister Diana's perspective are the most engaging – plaintively and beautifully written – slightly overshadowing the bulk of the text.) This leaves the book feeling unbalanced, particularly when these other characters recede entirely into the background during the second half. On a positive note, the pace picks up here, as the story finally finds its focus on Mahmood Mattan, his court case and his life up to this point; it builds much-needed momentum, unencumbered by digressions about secondary characters.
I also have to criticise the narrative voice for its inconsistency. Mostly writing in standard English, except for the dialogue, Nadifa Mohamed sporadically hints at some kind of dialect-infused stream-of-consciousness. It feels kinda out of place, as here, on page 65: "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 kinda work at all." Occasionally throughout the novel, when Mahmood Mattan is alone, we lurch back into this style, but it is haphazard and therefore smacks of lazy writing.
The setting, Tiger Bay in the 1950s, is brilliantly rendered, the vibrancy of city life undercut with squalor and bristling with racial tension. However, the dialogue and internal lives of the characters occasionally betray a very modern sensibility. This feels like a modern writer telling an important story of a life before her time that she cannot quite grasp, but it was a bold attempt nonetheless.
Here then at the heart of this we have the brutal slaying of Violet Volacki (in real life Lily Volpert) with Mahmood Hussein Mattan as the prime suspect. In actual fact the author’s father did know Mattan to a certain degree, as they were both sailors and her father always said that Mattan was really quite ordinary. This story then is really character driven, with the murder of a woman acting as our way into the whole piece. There is a certain irony that runs through this, albeit quite dark, because both victims, the murdered woman, and the man accused of the crime were immigrants to these shores, and thus this highlights those who originally arrived here, and their immediate offspring. Violet runs a shop that she has taken on from her now deceased father, who fled from Russia, and lives on the premises with her sister and her daughter. Mattan has somewhat settled down and has a wife and children, although he does not see them that often, due to his lifestyle. The story takes place in Tiger Bay, and centres around the area known as Butetown, a multicultural area where many worked in the shipping business and those associated industries at the time.
We read of Mattan and his life, both in the present of the story, as well as some scenes from his past, as well as the Volacki family and how they have survived and made something before the tragic death. Taking in racism and bigotry, and also the immigrant experience so this is rather apt still for our present time. As we see, when a reward is offered for the murder of Violet so certain things start to happen, as financial gain causes greed in some, and we are reminded all too clearly of the infamous Jonathan Wild. We are also reminded of injustices done through the courts, and we can see that the case here is very dodgy and any conviction from it highly unreliable, as there is no solid evidence as such, and it just seems like the lead detective has already decided who the murderer is. I personally do not think that this novel has in any way brought more attention to the original case that it is based on, but it does give us a very good read of what happens when things get out of hand, and unfortunately such things still happen: and of course for the murdered woman, no one has been properly tried for her death, and a man was hanged on very flimsy evidence for something that he was not likely to have been the perpetrator of.