Nadifa Mohamed and the cover of her novel The Fortune Men
By Twm Owen
A NOVEL centred around a notorious miscarriage of justice which saw an innocent man hanged has been longlisted for the Booker Prize.
The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed, tells the story of Mahmood Mattan, who was the last man to be executed in Wales.
The Somali seamen was found guilty of murdering shopkeeper Lily Volpert, in her outfitters and unofficial pawnbrooker’s shop, in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay on March 6, 1952.
She was found in a pool of blood and her throat cut by a razor while £100, equivalent to around £3,000 today, was stolen.
Mahmood had always maintained his innocence and his family, led by Welsh wife Laura, continued to campaign to clear his name, with his conviction eventually quashed in 1998. Three years later the Home Office paid compensation, for the first time, to the family of a man who had been wrongly hanged.
For the novel, which was released in May this year, Nadifa emersed herself in the 1950s docklands of Cardiff – known the world over as Tiger Bay.
Her book paints Mahmood as a fixture of 1952 Tiger Bay, which bustles with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families. As well as being a father Mahmood is portrayed as a chancer and petty criminal and smooth-talker with rakish charm and an eye for a good game. He is many things, but he is not a murderer.
In the novel when suspicion falls on him, Mahmood isn’t unduly worried. He has escaped worse scrapes, and he is innocent in a country where justice is served. Love lends him immunity too: the fierce love of Laura, who forgives his gambling in a heartbeat, and his children.
It is only in the run-up to the trial, as the prospect of returning home dwindles, that it will dawn on Mahmood that he is in a fight for his life – against conspiracy, prejudice and cruelty – and that the truth may not be enough to save him.
In reality, after a trial at Swansea Assizes where his own defence had described Mahmood as “this half-child of nature, a semi-civilised savage”, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death and taken to the gallows at Cardiff Prison on September 3, 1952.
Nadifa, who is a British-Somali author and journalist, born in Somaliland in 1981, before growing up in the UK, travelled from her home in London to talk to relatives and acquaintances of both Mahmood and the murder victim to research the novel.
Also longlisted for the prize are 1989 winner Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) for Klara and the Sun and Richard Powers, who was shortlisted in 2018 for The Overstory, for Bewilderment.
The shortlist of six books will be announced on Tuesday, September 14 and each shortlisted author will receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book.
The 2021 winner will be announced on Wednesday November 3 in an award ceremony held in partnership with the BBC. The winner of the 2021 Booker Prize receives £50,000 and can expect international recognition.
The Fortune Men is Nadifa’s third novel and her previous efforts, Black Mamba Boy and The Orchard of Lost Souls, were both shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize among other awards.
The 2021 longlist, or ‘The Booker Dozen’, of 13 novels, is:
- A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam (Granta Books, Granta Publications)
- Second Place, Rachel Cusk, (Faber)
- The Promise, Damon Galgut, (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, PRH)
- The Sweetness of Water, Nathan Harris (Tinder Press, Headline, Hachette Book Group)
- Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)
- An Island, Karen Jennings (Holland House Books)
- A Town Called Solace, Mary Lawson (Chatto & Windus, Vintage, PRH)
- No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing)
- The Fortune Men, Nadifa Mohamed (Viking, Penguin General, PRH)
- Bewilderment, Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann, PRH)
- China Room, Sunjeev Sahota (Harvill Secker, Vintage, PRH)
- Great Circle, Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday, Transworld Publishers, PRH)
- Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford (Faber)
This article originally appeared on our sister site The National.