Booker Prize 2021: Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

estimated reading time: 4 minutes

They have created a man – no, a Frankenstein’s monster – and branded it with his name before setting it loose. Standing there, shoulders sagging, in the Law Courts, in Cardiff, in Bilad al-Welsh, he feels the blows of their lies like a man shot with arrows. They are blind to Mahmood Hussein Mattan and all his real manifestations: the tireless stoker, the poker shark, the elegant wanderer, the love-starved husband, the soft-hearted father.

In 1952, Somali-born sailor Mahmood Mattan, from Cardiff, was wrongfully accused murder and consequently became one of the last people to be sentenced to death in Wales. He was arrested even while having an alibi confirmed by multiple people and it was later revealed that the police had bribed the key witnesses in the trial to testify against him. His name would only be cleared in 1998, after decades of work by his wife and three children, one of whom committed suicide, allegedly in part to the stigma he faced due to his father’s conviction. This is the story Nadifa Mohamed set out to tell with Fortune Men, a feat that took the writer, of Somali origins herself, over two decades.

On top of dealing with a case of miscarriage of justice that was highly publicized in the UK, Mohamed is the only British author to have made it to the shortlist stage, against three Americans – a possibility many feared when the Booker Prize lifted its restriction to books published in the Commonwealth in 2014. The main theme of the story is obviously racism, and while this isn’t an isolated case in this year’s shortlist, it’s the only commentary on specifically British racial discrimination, and its denouncement is directed at the police force and the justice system. This makes Mohamed’s novel relevant to many of the most current topics in the British public discourse. 

Despite this fascinating premise, however, the novel doesn’t seem to reach its full potential. The prose is simple and to the point, yet the story seems to meander. The first handful of chapters preceding the murder, which should paint a picture of Mattan’s life and of mid-century Cardiff, are forgettable and a slog to get through. Some time is devoted to the victim’s relatives, to give dimension to their familial tragedy as well, but to little effect. Ultimately the cast of supporting characters pales compared to our protagonist, whose nuance starts to emerge only during the trial chapters, and the minimalism of Mohamed’s prose works to enhance her few flowery quips and more emotional internal monologues.

One might think this might be yet another case of a historical novel weighed down by the author’s desire to do justice to their research. And these are, after all, real events, something that pushes even the most flowery of narrators towards a more journalistic style. The narrative is slowed down by descriptions and extra details that don’t enhance it and sometimes even hinder it by simultaneously being too specific to be interesting and too vague to help Mohamed’s Cardiff come to life. Most of the men in the book wear homburg hats, something the reader is unlikely to forget as every single homburg hat is always referred to as such even after its homburg-ness has already been made explicit. Some detours seem to have no other purpose than hammering home that this is the ‘50s. The extent of the fictionalization carried on by Mohamed is also larger than it appears at first, with many anecdotes surrounding Mattan’s early life being the work of the author’s imagination. So what exactly is the force pushing Mohamed’s writing towards this dry, uninspired style?

It’s worth noting, though, that Mohamed succeeds in making Mattan himself a dimensional and intriguing figure, not in spite of his ordinariness but because of it. He tries to be a good father and a good worker -, keyword being tries -, as he sometimes struggles with it like most ordinary people of good intentions do in a world poised against them. He’s not a revolutionary, however, and his social consciousness stops at knowing that it’s unfair that some men won’t give him work, that his rent is too high, that people disapprove of his white wife’s choice to marry him. In a way, Mohamed doesn’t just denounce historical systemic racism through the story she tells, but also the treatment of racialized stories by an overwhelmingly white publishing industry, by presenting the fictionalized Mattan in a way that doesn’t reduce his existence to his role in a tale of racial injustice. Mattan is never reduced to a plot device but allowed to be a fully-fledged character. It just sometimes felt that this wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel, that the more forgettable chapters overwhelmed the poignant, emotional ones at the trial. Even the eventual execution, over in less than five pages, which should be the climax of the novel and an apt scene for Mohamed’s perfunctory style to shine, falls flat.

Extending his arms in front of him, his shoulders and elbows cracking loudly, he listens to his heart beating out a rhythm. ‘I will wrap the road around my waist like a belt,’ he sings, ‘and walk the earth even if no one sees me.’ Then he holds his palms out as if the sun is a ball he can catch.

Why it could win

Fortune Men unearths a historical event that is still relevant to modern – and especially British – audiences. While the prose may feel lackluster at times, Mohamed’s voice shines through in select, thoughtful meditations on the nature of justice and otherness.

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