The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Penguin, 2021)
Review by Sita Brahmachari
Beware! This story is a haunting. It summons wronged ghosts of Britain’s colonial past home to Tiger Bay in Cardiff. Drawing on sparse court records and derisory, racist press coverage, The Fortune Men is a tour de force of lyrical storytelling, bringing to light the wrongful execution of belatedly pardoned Somali sailor, husband and father, Mahmood Mattan. It places his extraordinary voice and sensibility into today’s world and reinstates his humanity.
With filmic detail and vitality, Nadifa Mohamed transports readers back to the streets, cafes, bars and clothes shops of the Cardiff docks. Her spotlight falls on twenty-four-year-old Mattan, drinking in a bar in Tiger Bay during the momentous hour in 1952 when the new queen is announced. Mohamed’s prose sings with diaspora voices, humour and the glorious, sensory overload of stories that flow into port brought by a global cast of inhabitants from Malta, India, the Caribbean islands, Russia and Somalia. Mohamed has a keen ear for the minutiae of relations and hierarchies between the migrant sailors and wider Cardiff community as they take shape and fissure in the post-war dismantling of ‘Empire’ and colonial rule.
When we meet him, Mattan is down on his luck, a shrunken figure, but he has been a ship’s stoker and sailed the seven seas since he set out from ‘British Somaliland’ as a teenager. We discover that, though illiterate, he speaks five languages. Known in Cardiff as ‘the shadow’, Mattan is a sometime gambler and occasional thief, who has been given an ultimatum ‘to get a straight job’ by his beloved Cardiff wife. They are separated and he now only has visiting rights to see their three children.
Early on in the novel, Mattan is arrested on trumped up charges for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper. The majority of his story is then told from a cell in Cardiff prison, to which the reader becomes a witness. In this state of confinement, Mohamed expands the reader’s vision of Mattan’s sensibility and consciousness. It is with an exquisite sense of symbolic beauty and longing that she draws readers into the vastness of his journey as a young man – his desert sands, longed-for family, starry nights at sea and nomadic life, his culture and faith.
The blood-curdling disenfranchisement of Mattan during the court room trials are written with a razor sharp, brutal sparseness. Mohamed is pitch perfect in capturing the dislocation Mattan experiences as the freedoms of his epic life are stripped from him by institutional and societal racism, ‘His English fracturing… Somali, Hindi, Swahili and English clotting at once on his tongue.’
Nadifa Mohamed is a storyteller of great skill, nuance and heart. The Fortune Men is an important and deeply humane story that resonates all too deeply and painfully in our world today. This compelling tale will break readers’ hearts and haunt them… and should do, too. Mohamed’s novel offers some hope of healing for Mattan’s family and for posterity from the deep wounds of injustice. It will, no doubt, leave readers reflecting on the visceral impacts of these historic injustices born of racism. Their ghosts walk among us, and their legacy feels all too contemporary.