Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in 1952 is a melting pot with sailors from Africa and the Caribbean, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. It’s also home to Mahmood Mattan, a young Somali seaman who is out of work, has a slight gambling problem and is struggling to convince his wife, Laura, a Welsh woman, to return to him with their three sons. A chancer, a smooth-talker and a petty thief, Mattan is known to the police, and wary of them. When a young woman is brutally murdered in her shop suspicion falls on Mattan. Secure in his innocence and his faith in the British justice system, he isn’t worried by his arrest however as things develop, and his case goes to trial, he begins to wonder if the truth alone is enough to set him free.
The Fortune Men starts with the death of the King, announced on the wireless in a bar owned by Berlin and his Trinidadian wife and occupied by Somali sailors. The first three chapters introduce all the characters and sets the scene of a place bursting with stories, from “Kenya to Ceylon to Malaysia to Australia” and the complicated relationships of each of them. Immigration, colonialism and racism as well as the Great Wars are always in the subtext as each of our characters has had to sacrifice something of themselves in order to be where they are, in the heart of the British Empire.
I must confess it took me a moment to fully get into the story, although reading it back I don’t know why that was. Nadifa Mohamed details the lives of each character, from the food they eat and the spices they use to cook, to the newspapers with salacious stories and conversations about their own history using words and phrases from Somali, Arabic and Yiddish. The scenes outside, of a war beaten, multicultural and poverty stricken Cardiff are bought to life with her vivid descriptive texts, “The Bay emerges out of the industrial fog and sea mist like an ancient fossilized animal stepping out of the water. You might walk along the docks and find sailors carrying parrots or little monkeys in makeshift jackets to sell or keep as souvenirs, you can have chop suey for lunch and Yemini saltah for dinner, even in London you won’t find the pretty girls – with grandparents from each continent – that you just stumble into in Tiger Bay”
Violet is murdered in her shop, with her sister and niece next door. The killing sends shockwaves throughout the neighbourhood and the wider Jewish community. Suspicions fall upon the Somali sailors and it isn’t long before the police come knocking at Mattan’s door. The tension between the police and Mattan is palpable: “You cannot look like pray here. You cannot show weakness or your days are numbered, like those of the Somali drunk the police beat to death last year” From the way he dresses to the way he walks, he tries to keep himself as invisible as possible from fear of attacks from drunken Welshmen and, more worryingly, the police. Knowing his innocence, Mattan shrugs off the interaction.
I really enjoyed what the book had to say about being a “model” immigrant; who is accepted and who never will be. I appreciated that each character had a back story that led them to Tiger Bay, not always due to their own choices. Britain isn’t presented as the saviour, rather the contributions and sacrifices made by those from its former colonies, at their personal expense, is portrayed in its sobering truth. The lingering effects of the Second World War, poverty, and the roles women play in society are all explored. I thought all the female characters were well crafted, and there is also a little nod to motherhood. Laura, Mattan’s wife and a mother of three mixed heritage children, Diana, violets sister and a single mother to Gracie and even Mattan’s own mother, as she writes to him from Hargeisa. The “villain” if there needs to be one, is policing and the assumption of guilt by virtue of being a black man.
There are so many layers to this book: explorations of memory, the consequences of history and the lessons life teaches on the streets. The tone changes for a short while towards the end of the book, the descriptive and lyrical narrative becomes clinical and factual in the court case, sending nervous shivers down the readers back, as we hungrily consume the details, and then the prose returns. If the beginning is a little slow building up to the events of the books, the ending is entirely engrossing. Long after finishing The Fortune Men, the story stayed with me. Even now, every time I go back to the book to write this review, I find myself reading and rereading the passages. It’s an incredibly compelling and powerful read and I’m not at all surprised that its shortlisted for The Booker Prize 2021.
If you enjoyed “The Confessions of Frannie Langton” by Sara Collins I think you will probably enjoy this too. Do let me know in the comments below if you’ve read this book and what you thought of it or if its on your tbr list.
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Published by Viking books on the 27 May 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction, Thriller, Non-fiction novel, Biographical Fiction