Discussions of racial inequity often focus on the US as opposed to scrutinising the entrenched racism on our own shores. 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.
Set in 1952 among the “tumbledown” docks, milk bars and lodging houses of Cardiff’s multiracial Tiger Bay, The Fortune Men is Mohamed’s third book. It novelises the real events surrounding the wrongful imprisonment and execution of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali seaman and father of three young boys, who was the last man to be hanged in Cardiff prison. Fabricated evidence, false witness testimonies and institutionally racist policing led to him being found guilty of the murder of a shopkeeper, Lily Volpert, here renamed Violet Volacki.
Mohamed’s refashioning of this story takes time to develop its momentum. Largely, this is because of an understandable attempt at even-handedness: several of the opening chapters take on the perspectives of Violet and her family, and capture their grief after Violet’s murder. The novel becomes most powerfully compelling when attention is squarely focused on spiky, maverick Mattan and the fight to clear his name. Mattan is a shape-shifting character, variously positioned as a rakish antihero, plucky picaro, petty thief, charismatic dreamer, prideful gambler, doting father, anti-colonial firebrand and speaker of truth to power. It is predominately through her depiction of Mattan’s imprisonment that Mohamed achieves this layered complexity. She animates his incarceration with evocative flashbacks to Mattan’s wandering childhood in fractious British Somaliland and recollections of his risky life in the merchant navy. Mattan’s tender aspirations and vulnerabilities are brought to the fore, humanising a figure often dismissed by those around him as reckless and troublesome.
The most searing element of Mattan’s incarceration as imagined by Mohamed is his spiritual contemplation when behind bars. While awaiting trial, Mattan’s belief in the “famous British justice [system]” wavers and he finds renewed religious faith that encourages him to assess his life afresh. This new understanding is expressed in delicate and perspicacious prose:
“God reminds you through […] night skies of how small and insignificant you are, and he speaks to you clearly, his anger and solace tangible in the rain he sends or withholds, the births or deaths he orders, the long, waxy grass he gives or the dead, broken earth he carves. The miasma above the prison, above Cardiff [had] separated him from God. He began to strut and blush his days away and completely forget that his life meant nothing and was as fragile as a twig underfoot. He had needed to be humbled […] he can see God’s wisdom so clearly now.”
In her determined, nuanced and compassionate exposure of injustice, Mohamed gives the terrible story of Mattan’s life and death meaning and dignity.
• The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.