The next book I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list is Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The Fortune Men. I enjoyed her previous book, The Orchard of Lost Souls, and was looking forward to this one, particularly as it has been so highly acclaimed, being shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It’s based on a true story – the trial of a Somali man accused of murder in 1950s Wales. If you don’t already know all the details of the trial and its outcome, I would recommend not looking them up until you’ve finished the book. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this review!
I found the opening chapters of the novel slightly overwhelming, as we are introduced to a large number of characters of various nationalities and backgrounds, switching quickly from one viewpoint to another, but in hindsight I think this was probably intentional, designed to throw the reader straight into the bustling, multicultural heart of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay as it would have been in 1952. After a while, the focus tightens to concentrate on two main characters: the murder victim and the man accused of the murder. His name is Mahmood Mattan, a Somali sailor who has settled in the dockland area of Tiger Bay.
Things are not going well for Mahmood at the beginning of the novel – he has separated from his wife, Laura, a Welsh woman who lives nearby with their three sons, and he is staying in a boarding house with several other men, none of whom make him feel very welcome. He’s struggling to find work and is drifting into a life of petty crime and theft, with any money he does have being spent on gambling. However, when Violet Volacki is found dead on the floor of her shop, her throat slit and a large sum of money missing from the safe, Mahmood is blamed just because the victim’s sister and young niece – Diana and Grace – reported seeing a Somali man standing in the shop doorway just before the murder took place. Even when Diana and Grace say that Mahmood was not the man they saw, the police are adamant that they’ve caught the right man and that he will hang for what he’s done.
Although we know Mahmood is not a murderer, he is not a particularly easy character to like either. He’s a thief, a gambler and often his own worst enemy, as we see during his arrest and trial, when his attitude rubs everyone up the wrong way and makes things worse for himself. But he’s also a loving husband and father and despite feeling that she couldn’t go on living with him, Laura has not given up on their relationship and vows to help him in any way she can. In the middle of the book, we are given Mahmood’s backstory, with some insights into his childhood in British Somaliland (as it was known then), his days working as a ship’s stoker, and how he came to live in Wales and to marry Laura. While I think this information could have been worked into the story more gradually, it was good to learn more about Mahmood’s past and to discover what made him into the man he became.
We also get to know Violet Volacki and her widowed sister Diana – but I’m not sure how much of this part of the novel was based on fact and how much was fictional, because Violet Volacki was not the real name of the murder victim (it was Lily Volpert, apparently changed at the request of a family member). Still, it was interesting to see some of the story from a different perspective, although I thought Diana disappeared from the novel too soon after Violet’s death – I would have liked to have seen more of how she was coping in the aftermath of the murder and how she felt about Mahmood being blamed.
This is a powerful novel and becomes quite emotional as the full scale of this terrible miscarriage of justice is revealed. I can’t really say that it’s a book I loved, but it’s one that I’m glad I’ve read.
This is book 9/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.
This is book 37/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.