Despite my best intentions, reading the Booker longlist during the calendar year just wasn’t realistic due to US release times. I did, however, finally get my hands on Nadifa Mohamed’s The Fortune Men (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021), which is the last of the shortlist for me. (There are two longlisted books that are still outstanding.) Based on a true story, The Fortune Men is a fascinating read about a wrongfully convicted Black man in Wales in the 1950s. Mohamed’s prose is matter of fact – built on a foundation of truth with sprinklings of humor and love – that focuses on building the character of Mahmood Mattan and not the tragedy that defined his existence. The point is clear – Mattan was just a man. He wasn’t a saint, but he wasn’t a murderer either.
In 1952, Violet Volacki, a Jewish shopkeeper, was brutally murdered in her store. Her sister and niece had seen a dark-skinned man in the doorway just prior to the murder. Despite both saying the man they saw was not Mahmood Mattan, he was arrested and charged. A trial, both said the man they saw was not in the courtroom. There was no evidence supporting the charge, yet Mattan was convicted and sentenced to be hung. His wife fought for decades to exonerate him and finally succeeded in 1998, over 40 years after he was executed.
Mohamed paints Mattan with a delicate brush, showing the reader all his flaws as well as his richness, his devotion to his children, and the love he had for his wife, a white woman who would cleave to his memory and fight for justice for her husband, their biracial children, and their love – as imperfect as it was. Mohamed doesn’t focus on the injustice, the intergenerational trauma or Laura’s struggles. Even the trial is limited in scope in the text. Instead, Mohamed focuses on developing Tiger Bay and what life looked like for the families, like Mattans and the Volackis, who called it home. Most importantly, she puts flesh to the bones and breaths life into a ghost.
Read this book.