Mixed feelings after having finished The Fortune Men. I had trouble getting into the novel, a day after reading the final pages I wonder whether Mohamed has not tried to do too much to make her message come over. That message hits the reader hard, it could have been even more overwhelming.
The Fortune Men is based on a true story. Main character Mahmood Mattan is a Somalian sailor who is accused of killing a woman in Cardiff, in the fifties of the previous century. He is innocent, nevertheless he is found guilty by the jury and is executed. Many years later the case is re-opened, this time Mahmood is found innocent. His execution a matter of unabashed racism.
Violet Volacki is a single woman in her forties. She runs the pawn shop her father opened. She is efficient, lends money where necessary, allows people to buy things on credit. The shop is situated in a Cardiff area close to the harbour, it has become less and less safe through the years. Violet, her sister Diana en niece Gracie continue living in the parental home, noticing the changes that are taking place. Mahmood Mattan is a young man, a Somalian sailor. He has chosen to stay in Cardiff because he has fallen in love with a white British woman, Laura. They have three children, their marriage however is not going well. Laura has told Mahmood to leave, he has to rent a room in a boarding house.
Violet and her sister are pillars of (Jewish) society who have earned their place in the lower working-class district. Mahmood is a newcomer who is regarded with suspicion. Violet is respected, her neighbours might have their ideas about her pawn-shop, they do consider her a respectable woman. One who is well-behaved and does not cross the law. Mahmood is a different story. He has a somewhat personal take on property, considers petty theft a right, does not hesitate to cheat and is mostly busy gambling together spending money. He is a petty criminal, known to the police.
Is Mahmood a likeable main character? No, not really. He is cheeky, cocky, impudent. He does not get that his behaviour does not sit well with friends and neighbours. He is fighting over petty things with too many people, losing their sympathy. Only at a late moment do we find out he does not know how to read or write, has hardly had any education, grew up in a country where people defined their own laws. He does not get at all that his impudent behaviour after having been arrested only worsens his case.
The Fortune Men is an enormous complaint against racism, that’ll be obvious. Racism at the police, racism from the white British who consider Mahmood, who has had the temerity to marry one of their own, an ideal scapegoat. Racism at the court that condemns an innocent man. An innocent man who unfortunately did not help himself with his rash, unthinking behaviour. Does that sanction him being put to death? No way. Mahmood’s cocky character should not have mattered.
As a reader I tend to waver on the subject of sympathising with Mahmood. I found I could not stomach Mahmood’s big mouth well. I only started feeling a certain degree of sympathy for him after he has been sent to jail. Then Mohamed starts talking about his past, then we find out what triggers him, what motivates him. In the first part of the novel I struggled with a main character I could not respect. In the second part of the novel I found myself starting to understand him.
It does not help that I found the novel kind of messy at the start. This messiness reflects the disorder in the neighbourhood. I do wonder however whether the novel would not have profited from a stronger focus. Now we are presented with two story lines, one of which kind of peters out. Mahmoods story line grows stronger and stronger, becoming more and more convincing. At that point the novel finally grabbed me. Despite the disorder at the start Mohamed does present her readers with some beautiful writing. There are many chapters in which she shows she can create exquisite well-constructed sentences, beautifully describing situations and people.
Mixed feelings. Horror that someone dies in such a terrible manner, dissatisfaction with Mohamed not presenting his case as strongly as she could. I can imagine people being charmed by her approach, appreciating the way she presents the disorder. They’ll be the ones rooting for her to win the Booker.
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