The weight of inevitability hangs over Nadifa Mohamed’s extraordinary Booker shortlisted novel The Fortune Men. The true story of Mahmood Mattan, a mainstay in Tiger Bay in Cardiff during the early 50s. A petty criminal and charmer, he finds himself accused of the murder of a shopkeeper. Unconcerned about the accusation, he puts his faith in the justice system, “the truth kill the lie,” he tells one character, “I put my faith in God and he don’t let no innocent man suffer.” His confidence begins to wane though as the systemic racism, as well as the prejudices of the people in his neighbourhood begin to conspire against him.
Mohamed’s great strength with The Fortune Men is ensuring the reader is never in any doubt of Mattan’s innocence. This is no Serial-esque mystery, and that we know extremely early on that he is not responsible for the murder, means that this is no voyeuristic exploitation of real life events, but a sympathetic look at the treatment of immigrants in the UK. The circumstances that Mattan finds himself in are frustrating, and once he finds himself in the justice system, he enters into a Kafka-esque nightmare which serves to deepen his faith.
The novel is mostly quiet and contemplative. As Mattan’s circumstances become more and more dire, he thinks back on his life in Somaliland, on a variety of Merchant ships, before settling in Cardiff with a family, all relayed in brilliant flashbacks. Mattan is a vividly rendered and complex character. He is no villain, clearly, but he is far from perfect. A doting father, he is also sleeping around. A petty criminal, but a good worker. He is a man full of contradictions and makes for a fascinating eye through which to view this period of history. His friendship with two guards, and his slow dawning realisation of the institutionalised racism of the predicament he is in, lead to some of the best scenes in the novel, in particular a game of chess, in which he comes to understand that,
“Isn’t this what the world is like? With countries and seas instead of black and white squares, the white man spread all over, the black man picked off wherever he might be and left to eke out a life on the fringes of the board.”
After picking white counters and winning, he tells the officers he’s playing against, “I play white and my luck change.”
It is no surprise whatsoever that The Fortune Men has found itself on the shortlist for the Booker. It’s tale of injustice is timely and important, but more than that, it is a sad, deeply emotional novel that will resonate for a long time after the final pages. I doubt that this is the only shortlisting it will have.
Any cop? Oh yes, it’s a magnificent and important novel. Mohamed is part of a group of authors and filmmakers shining a light on Black history in the UK, bringing stories like these to life to show just how little we have changed as a country. It’s a complete gem of a book.