THE FORTUNE MEN. By Nadifa Mohamed. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages. $27.
Nadifa Mohamed’s latest novel, her third, takes one of the United Kingdom’s most notorious miscarriages of justice for its subject matter. In 1952, a young Somali former seaman, Mahmood Mattan, was executed for the murder of Lily Volpert, a Jewish shopkeeper, in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff. The case against him was flimsy in the extreme and in 1998 became the first to be referred to the U.K. Court of Appeal by a newly formed Criminal Cases Review Commission.
The Court of Appeal duly overturned the 1952 conviction calling the prosecution “demonstrably flawed.” Mattan’s surviving family — his Welsh widow and their three sons — were awarded 725,000 pounds in compensation.
Novels centering on racial injustice are, sadly, not uncommon. “Cry, the Beloved Country” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are classics. Unlike the relatively simplistic racial binary of apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow Alabama, however, Mohamed gives us a more complex social portrait of Cardiff in the early 1950s. The murdered shopkeeper’s family members, for instance, are Jewish refugees from Russia and her brother-in-law Ben Tanay had signed up for the British army immediately after Kristallnacht.
More importantly, unlike Alan Paton and Harper Lee, who focus on the good (White) lawyer trying to save their helpless and naïve Black victim, “The Fortune Men” gives us richly satisfying insight into the life of the victim himself and the hardscrabble milieu in which he and the other “fortune men” of the title move.
Like so many similar marginal communities in port cities around the world, the docklands area of Tiger Bay in Cardiff was inhabited by a multiracial mix of Somalis, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Sierra Leoneans, Kroos, Maltese, and Arabs — mainly men — who had been in the engine-room of Empire but never welcome in its drawing rooms. These cosmopolitan, polyglot migrants coexist uneasily with the local working-class Welsh population, but share a sense of exclusion from, and distrust of, the establishment, including the police and legal system. At the death of King George VI with which the novel opens, the news is met on the street not with reverence but with mockery of the late king’s stutter.
The brilliance of Mohamed’s novel lies not just in its re-creation of working-class Cardiff in the early ’50s, but in the seamless way it introduces us to Mahmood’s backstory in East Africa. Mohamed relays Mahmood’s recollections of his life in Somalia in his own voice, first via conversations with a Jamaican cellmate (who turns out to have been a police informant), and later by way of a more formal interview with the prison doctor.
The contrast between the stock phrases with which the doctor records Mahmood’s life as a child and young man and Mahmood’s own description running away to Nairobi, then Mombasa, then Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam strikingly shows up the degree to which Mahmood is adrift in late imperial Britain. The fact that he does not fit the script as a British citizen facilitates the subsequent failure of the legal system that results in his wrongful execution.
Mohamed’s treatment of the legal proceedings again shows great literary deftness. Presenting the trial in dialog form, for example, and drawing directly from actual transcripts, Mohamed allows the reader almost to witness this travesty of justice as it unfolds. But while one reads with anger and a mounting sense of outrage against the system — the extraordinarily damning case presented by Mahmood’s defense attorney, for example, beggars belief — Mohamed never overdoes things, nor does she reduce any character to stereotype. Even the racist end-of-empire Detective Powell is no mere caricature, and the two warders who are assigned to guard Mahmood in his “condemned suite” for the three weeks preceding his hanging are vividly humanized within a few brief sentences.
Balancing the slow horror of the legal process and the indifference (at best) of the “system” to Mahmood’s plight, Mohamed gives us a wonderfully subtle portrait of Mahmood’s Welsh family, notably the complex relationship Mahmood has with his more-or-less estranged wife, Laura. Mahmood has clearly not been a good and reliable husband and father, but Laura stands by him throughout the trial, and the couple’s love for each other is palpable. Their final meeting, separated by prison glass, is one of the most moving scenes I have read in years.