Friday, 11 June 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
Published in the UK by Penguin on the 27th May 2021.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mahmood Mattan is a fixture in Cardiff's Tiger Bay, 1952, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. He is a father, chancer, some-time petty thief. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer. 

So when a shopkeeper is brutally killed and all eyes fall on him, Mahmood isn't too worried. It is true that he has been getting into trouble more often since his Welsh wife Laura left him. But Mahmood is secure in his innocence in a country where, he thinks, justice is served. 

It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of freedom dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a terrifying fight for his life - against conspiracy, prejudice and the inhumanity of the state. And, under the shadow of the hangman's noose, he begins to realise that the truth may not be enough to save him.

I didn't realise, until I got to the epilogue, that The Fortune Men is actually a fictionalisation of the story of a 1950s miscarriage of justice, one that was rectified albeit several decades too late. Nadifa Mohamed captures perfectly the atmosphere of Cardiff's Tiger Bay in 1952: the new Queen mourning the death of her father while an unknown Shirley Bassey sings professionally for the first time, the vibrant multicultural community and the nationally-determined cliques who keep to themselves. Mahmood Mattan is right at the centre of it all although his his frequently shady enterprises mean he is more often to be found in the shadows and that is what gets his name mentioned in the wrong place at very much the wrong time.

I loved how Nadifa Mohamed portrays Tiger Bay and Butetown particularly. She must have painstakingly researched the area at that time and the effort pays off with a grittily authentic vibe throughout The Fortune Men. I felt I really understood the people there and how they lived. I also could strongly empathise with Mahmood as he sees his long-held beliefs in British fair play and justice eroded day by day. The scenes and emotions are so vivid that I often felt more as though I was watching a film than reading a book (and I would not be surprised to see this book swiftly snapped up for a filmed version!). It tackles themes of racism, personal identity and colonial arrogance, exploring how individual lives become invisible when they smash up against faceless bureaucracy. The Fortune Men shines a spotlight on a hushed-up aspect of recent British history and is a wonderfully immersive read.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Nadifa Mohamed / Historical fiction / Books from Somaliland

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