“The Fortune Men” by Nadifa Mohamed is a story that exists off the page. Nominated for the 2021 Booker Prize, “The Fortune Men” is based on true events, as Mohamed brings to light the wrongful conviction of Somali 29-year-old Mahmoud Hussein Mattan for the murder of Jewish shopkeeper, Lily Volpert. In the book, Mattan is referred to as ‘Mahmood,’ while Lily is renamed ‘Violet.’ Mattan was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. “I wanted to make the line between fact and fiction imperceptible so [I] immersed myself in the minute details of Mahmood’s life so that I could almost think his thoughts,” said Mohamed in her Booker Prize Q&A.
And that is exactly what she does. Leading up to the crime, we follow Mahmood as he goes through the motions of his everyday life. He begins at the Employment Exchange office, where Mohamed initially makes clear the racist and classist commentary that inform this story — “There is nothing worth trying for; none of the usual firms that can be relied upon to take coloured fellas are advertising” — before making his way to place bets at the racetrack.
During these initial chapters, Mohamed intertwines the perspective of Violet Volacki, the shopkeeper who is later murdered; her sister, Diana; and Diana’s daughter, Grace. Mohamed includes only enough backstory for the reader to understand the history of the Volacki shop, opened by Violet’s father when he immigrated to Cardiff, and its prominence to the community. Everyone knew Violet, and she knew them; at her funeral, “there must have been more than two hundred mourners from all districts of Cardiff.”
She was murdered in the shop after closing, having gone to answer the doorbell before settling down to eat with Diana and Grace. The latter remained in the adjoining dining room when Violet left to help the customer, each catching a brief glimpse of the man waiting outside the shop door: “A black shadow with a mouth of gold.”
It was following Violet’s death, under the perspective of Diana, that I was first struck with the magnitude of Mohamed’s writing. “The tide of it all just pulling her in and pushing her out, the shipwreck slow and ongoing until maybe, one day, she will wash up on some distant, unknowable beach, hopefully with Grace still beside her.”
Mohamed’s talent shines in profound, emotional moments of grief. Though I had wanted more of these heart-wrenching lines, I think their infrequent use was purposeful to the novel’s intention. While some aspects are more fictitious, the book is still conveying a true story, after all. In real life, we fail to speak in constant imagery and metaphor; in that sense, Mohamed strikes a delicate balance between these descriptive, almost lyrical moments and the more realistic accounts of trauma and injustice.
After Violet’s death, the narration sticks to Mahmood’s perspective. Though there is little evidence beyond the general description of a “tall, coloured man,” Mahmood is arrested the day after the murder. The police try to pressure Mahmood into a confession, taking advantage of his limited English to create an intensely stressful environment: “Mahmood stumbles, his English is fracturing, words of Somali, Arabic, Hindi, Swahili and English clotting at once on his tongue.”
The police also fail to read Mahmood his rights, specifically the fact that he can leave the station. The abuse of the police is portrayed repeatedly throughout the novel as they try to pin Mahmood for the crime. During the interrogation, Mohamed reveals the Chief Detective’s racist train of thought, demonstrating that catching the right man was less crucial than their desire to protect their own influence and power.
Though “The Fortune of Men” is largely responsible for sharing Mahmoud Hussein Mattan’s story with a modern audience, much of this story is not unfamiliar. In an interview with The New York Times, Mohamed shares the following: “I’ve always seen the side of the state, and that’s probably why I was able to keep the interest in Mahmood Mattan’s story for all those years, because I knew this wasn’t anything that was changing quickly. Even now when I speak to the children in my family, and they talk about their experiences of racism, the way that the teachers talk to them or about them, you can see that they’re another generation that will have to carry on the struggle.”
What makes Mohamed’s novel so forceful, though, is her ability to create complex, dynamic characters in the face of such all-consuming injustice. “They are blind to Mahmood Hussein Mattan and all his real manifestations: the tireless stoker, the poker shark, the elegant wanderer, the love-starved husband, the soft-hearted father.”
The majority of the novel sees Mahmood in prison, from the day he was arrested to the day of his execution. Misery and pain fester here for Mahmood, but faith and love also bloom. The reader fluctuates with Mahmood as he shifts between contrasting states of mind and reacts to news of his predicament. You stay the course with him until the very end. It’s a testament to Mohamed that we are able to hold on to faith, half-expecting Mahmood to be freed, waiting for justice to be served, for the truth to be revealed.
Knowing the end does not make it less staggering, less agonizing, less desolating. It’s within these last painful pages that Mohamed’s Booker nomination is remarkably understood. “Life. Life. It is so simple and beautiful. The waxy leaves of an ivy vine snaking up from the sterile ground, a spider twitching on its bejeweled web, the flow of air in Mahmood’s lungs and the rush of blood through his heart — all of it beyond his control, all of it somehow both fleeting and eternal.”
Books Beat Editor Lilly Pearce can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.