January 24, 2022

Every bit as real that the reader hopes the story were pure fiction. The Fortune Men review

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The Fortune Men

Book cover Penguin Books

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel opens in Cardiff, Wales, just after Elizabeth II ascends the British throne in 1952.

The story follows two families and how their paths intersect following the murder of Violet Volacki. The central character, Mahmood Mattan, is a Somali seaman married to a white woman with whom he has three children, while Violet, her sister Diana, and niece Gracie are shopkeepers living in the rundown Tiger Bay.

Historically, Cardiff contained one of the most diverse populations. Ethnic minority families had been the subject of racism for decades, perhaps best exemplified by the 1919 South Wales race riots that resulted in hundreds of injuries and dozens of arrests.

The Fortune Men

by Nadifa Mohamed

Penguin

2021

384 pp

£14.99

Both a commentary on persistent racism and injustice within the prison system, The Fortune Men is difficult to digest. A black man wrongfully accused of committing a crime still reads eerily familiar to 21st-century audiences, as does the tensions between different ethnic and racial groups. Once reward money is offered to find the culprit, witnesses begin to materialize and the question remains: can innocence prevail over corruption?

The highlight of the novel is the relationships Mohamed creates between her characters; the reader feels injustice for Mahmood while also sympathizing with Gracie and Diana’s loss. Surprisingly, the center of the story is one of love—sisterly, romantic, and familial. Though each character has a distinct past, their choices are determined by their loved ones. Violet Volacki maintains her shop to honor her late father, while Mahmood steals clothes to preserve his relationship with his wife Laura. The ending, though, reveals that one’s actions and choices impact those beyond the immediate family.

If there is one shortcoming of the novel, it lies in the constant back and forth between narratives. In one part, the reader learns about Diana’s relationship with her ex-husband while in another, Mahmood’s time spent betting on horses. Parts that provide cultural background, such as Mahmood’s origin story, help ground the reader in the time period while others I found detracted from the overall message. The beginning built up to the murder, the middle somewhat tedious for me to read, and the ending—harrowing.

In the end, though, The Fortune Men is no work of fiction. Based on the murder of Lily Volpert on March 6, 1952, the book feels every bit as real that the reader hopes the story were pure fiction.

Nearing the 70th anniversary of the court murder commited in Wales, we realize that not much has changed these past decades. Systematic racism and police brutality remain as prevalent today as they were in 1952 Cardiff. Breonna Taylor’s murder in March 2020 or George Floyd’s in May 2020 are merely two of countless examples. The question of what the world will be like 70 years hence remains.

Written by:

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Noemi Elliott

Fiction & Poetry Section Editor

Singapore / United States

Co-founder of Harbingers’ Magazine

Born in 2003, Noemi Elliott divides her time between Singapore and the United States. Noemi holds American, British, and Hungarian citizenship and speaks English, Hungarian, and Mandarin.

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