The Somali-British writer Nadifa Mohamed’s third novel, The Fortune Men, is the fictionalised story of Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a merchant seaman wrongfully convicted of murder in 1952. Mattan was the last man to be hanged in the Cardiff prison. The woman he was accused of killing was named Lily Volpert. The 384-page book is published by Viking.
Mahmood Mattan, according to the synopsis, “is a father, chancer, sometime petty thief. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer.” He was a husband, too, until his Welsh wife Laura left him. Mattan’s innocence puts him at peace, but he soon realizes that he is in a country—Wales—where justice for a man like him is a far dream.
“Very uncharacteristically of me, I happened to be reading The Daily Mail in 2004 when they published a double-page spread on the Mahmood Mattan case, with a photo of him looking forlorn in jail splashed across its usually hostile pages,” Mohamed said of her motivation to write the story.
“It struck my imagination enough that I spoke to my father about this mysterious Somali man who had been executed in Britain long before I imagined any Somali community living here,” she said. “My father told me that he had, in fact, known Mahmood in Hull, when they were both living there in 1950, and had long known about his wrongful execution. This was my first moment of uncomfortable intimacy with this tragic case, and I think it sparked not only the desire to know more about it but also to write, to create, to animate a part of myself that had long lain dormant.”
She continued: “I began interviewing my father, recording him on what seemed at the time a very modern minidisc player, about what kind of man Mahmood had been. My father’s reply? Ordinary. A very ordinary man, who dressed well and married a Welsh woman. Over the next two decades, as I learned that Mahmood had not been ordinary at all, the beautiful way he dressed always came up quickly, his danger and his attractiveness intertwined. He dressed to avenge himself of a world that kept him poor and despised, that refused him decent housing and a free life with his wife and children – a world that feared his beauty.”
“Discussions of racial inequity often focus on the US as opposed to scrutinising the entrenched racism on our own shores,” Michael Donkor wrote in a review in The Guardian.“With The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed takes her place among the growing crop of British artists and writers of colour—including Reni Eddo-Lodge, Steve McQueen and Jay Bernard—committed to correctively shining a light on recent British history.”
In a blurb, Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire, notes that Mohamed is “[a] writer of great humanity and intelligence. [She] deeply understands how lives are shaped both by the grand sweep of history and the intimate encounters of human beings.” Pankaj Mishra calls the book “[a] novel of tremendous power, compassion and subtlety, it feels unsettlingly timely.”
Coming after Black Mamba Boy, a Betty Trask Prize winner, and The Orchard of Lost Souls, a Somerset Maugham Award winner, both dealing with Somali history, The Fortune Men is a heartbreaking novel about innocence and its irrelevance in the face of injustice.