The setting of Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men is Tiger Bay, Cardiff, 1952. Back in the day Tiger Bay was a port and a cultural melting pot ( including a Maltese community, and we do crop up in the book occasionally). The book’s plot is a retelling of an actual event where a Somali man, Mahmood Mattan, was falsely convicted, and subsequently hanged, for murdering a Polish shopkeeper.
In amateur hands this would just be a straight on thriller but Nadifa Mohamed adds so many depths and layers that The Fortune Men just transcends being a true crime tale.
First of all the book concentrates a lot on atmosphere: There’s a lot of passages dedicated to life on Tiger Bay from the main protagonist’s point of view: the shops, the bars, his gambling habits, the various characters Mahmood meets, even a glimpse of his cramped living quarters. We also get a second point of view from the Polish shopkeeper’s family and we see how slightly more moneyed people lived at the time.
As Mahmood is a Somali he is subjected to racism. People beat him up, refuse to help him or even do their best to avoid him. As we move towards his trial, despite being innocent, we readers see how racism is ingrained in people’s minds. In fact one person tells Mahmood that everything is fair in the eyes of justice but the reality sinks in that justice is only fair if your skin is so.
Immigration is another topic. Both Mahmood and the Polish family think about life in their homeland and how they felt like strangers so they had to move out to a country where they would stick out even more. It is ironic but sometimes in order to feel comfortable one has to be among strangers.
As in keeping with themes found in this year’s Booker Longlist, dependence on God features. In The Fortune Men Mahmood believes firmly that his faith in God with set him free and make the judge and jury realise that he is innocent. This is not so. Mahmood then feels that God has failed him. In a way the opposite scenario happens in the other longlisted book, Klara and the Sun , where the main protagonist prays to the Sun (God) for help and it actually happens. Incidentally I am one hour in of watching Milos Forman’s Amadeus for the first time and it is also about someone who wants God to punish Mozart for being a loud and uncouth person but when that fails the person loses his faith. I guess that God works in mysterious ways and that faith can be tested.
As for my impressions on the book; it’s excellent. I thought the writing style was vibrant, I liked the characters, I felt like I was a part of Tiger Bay. When that happens, I know I’m know I’m reading a special book. I can definitely see The Fortune Men as shortlisted and , dare I say, that it will feature in next year’s Women’s Prize. To hit my point in a bit more, The Fortune Men is a fantastic novel.