The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

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.

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed

The Orchard of Lost Souls In 2013, Nadifa Mohamed was named one of Granta’s “Best Young British Novelists”. This is her second novel, set in Somalia in the 1980s as rebel forces clash with the military dictatorship and the country heads towards civil war. The events of this turbulent period are seen through the eyes of three female characters:

* Deqo, a nine-year-old orphan who grew up in a refugee camp and has now found herself homeless and alone in the city of Hargeisa.
* Kawsar, a widow mourning the death of her daughter, who becomes confined to her bed after a violent beating at the police station.
* Filsan, a soldier sent to Hargeisa from the capital city of Mogadishu and feeling homesick for the life she has left behind.

During a military parade at a stadium in Hargeisa, the paths of these three women briefly cross before they are separated again and go on to have very different experiences of this troubled time in Somalia’s history.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Somalia before and I knew nothing about the causes of the civil war or the situation in Hargeisa, so reading The Orchard of Lost Souls meant I had an opportunity to learn something new. Telling the story from three different perspectives allows the author to explore different aspects of the war; through Deqo and Kawsar we see what it was like for people living in and around Hargeisa, trying to survive from one day to the next, while Filsan’s story gives us some insights into the military regime. As you can probably guess, many of the things the women experience are traumatic and brutal, though I won’t go into any details here.

As well as being educational, this is also a compelling story (or stories, as there are really three of them in this one novel) and I was interested in all three characters, although I thought Filsan was much more difficult to like than either Deqo or Kawsar. However, I did have some problems with the structure of the novel, especially at the beginning. For the first fifty pages of the book, the viewpoint switches rapidly between each of the three women which I found very overwhelming and confusing. I was relieved to discover that this didn’t continue all the way through the book! The opening section was followed by three longer sections concentrating on one character at a time, so I was able to get to know each of them separately before they eventually meet again near the end of the novel.

I can see why Nadifa Mohamed has won awards for her writing because she clearly has a lot of talent and her descriptions of Somalia are beautiful. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages, where Filsan remembers the streets of Mogadishu:

In the centre of the city where the alleys narrow at points to the width of a man’s shoulder blades, you can walk as if in a dream, never certain of what might appear after the next bend: a bare-chested man with a silver swordfish slung over his thin black back, a shoal of children reciting Quran from their wooden slates, a girl milking a white, lyre-horned cow. The place has enchantment, mystery, it moves backward and forward in time with every turn of the feet; it is fitting that it lies beside an ocean over which its soul can breathe, rather than being hemmed in by mountains like a jinn in a bottle.

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys Although the title of this novel is The Burgess Boys, there are actually three Burgess siblings – Jim, Bob and their sister Susan. Jim and Bob live in New York, while Susan is the only one to have remained in Shirley Falls, Maine – the town where they grew up. Jim is an ambitious and successful lawyer, whose defence of the singer Wally Packer has made him a household name. His younger brother, Bob, also has a career in the law but has never matched Jim’s achievements; he has spent his whole life blaming himself for an accident which killed his father, and as a result he doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Susan, Bob’s twin, is a single mother living in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son, Zach.

Shirley Falls, predominantly a white community, has recently become home to large numbers of Somali immigrants. Racial tensions in the town are already high and when Zach throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a mosque during Ramadan, it causes a national scandal. Jim and Bob return to the town of their childhood to support their sister and find out why their nephew has done something so terrible, but in the process they make some surprising discoveries about themselves and about each other.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher last year but didn’t read it as it didn’t sound very appealing to me and as I hadn’t requested it I didn’t feel under any obligation to read it if I didn’t want to. I do remember reading some positive reviews of it, though, and when I noticed it was named on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I decided to give it a try. Now that I’ve read it I think my initial reaction was correct because it really wasn’t my type of book at all; I was interested enough to keep reading right to the end and I appreciated the quality of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, but this was a book that I could admire without particularly enjoying.

I found this quite a subdued and depressing novel. All of the characters, even the secondary ones, seem to be such unhappy people, dissatisfied with their lives, their marriages and their jobs. With the possible exception of the good-natured Bob Burgess and one of the Somali characters, Abdikarim Ahmed, I didn’t like any of them. I thought Susan was cold and bitter, Jim was over-confident and insensitive, and Helen (Jim’s wife) was shallow and self-absorbed. There’s certainly a lot of character development and by the end of the book it’s obvious that there is more to each person than originally meets the eye – but they are simply not people that I had much interest in getting to know.

I do think it was a good idea to write part of the novel from the perspective of the Somali immigrants. I was struck by the way so many of the non-Muslim people in Shirley Falls, while not necessarily racist, seem to have almost no knowledge of Islamic culture or the customs of the Somali people who are living among them (they incorrectly refer to them as Somalians, for example, and in some cases have never heard of Ramadan and don’t know why a pig’s head might be offensive to a Muslim). However, I never felt I completely understood Zach and why he did what he did, although the author does her best to make us feel sympathetic towards him by portraying him as a shy, awkward teenager who (slightly unbelievably) was unaware of the implications of his actions.

The Burgess Boys is a thought-provoking read and a good portrayal of a dysfunctional family, but I found the story disappointingly flat and boring, lacking any sort of drama or interesting plot developments. However, despite not enjoying this book very much I haven’t ruled out trying one of Elizabeth Strout’s other books at some point, particularly Olive Kitteridge which sounds much better than this one.