“Booker Prize 2021: 6 Books Sure to be shortlisted for this prize.
“The Fortune Men”: In order of reading book number 2.
Mahmood Mattan pushes through the crowd at the bar.
« I said get me another coffee. ». Berlin catches his Trinidadian wife’s waist and steers her towards Mahmood.
« Lou sort this trouble maker another coffee».
Ranged along the bar are many of Tiger Bay’s Somali sailors. They look somewhere between gangsters and dandies in their cravates, pocket chains and trilby hats. Only Mahmood wears a homburg pulled down low over his gaunt face and sad eyes. He is a quiet man always appearing and disappearing silently at the fringes of the sailors or the gamblers or the thieves. Men pull their possessions closer when he is around and keep their eyes on his long elegant fingers.
Nadifa Mohamed takes us on a trip back in time, to Tiger Bay in the early fifties where she draws us a vibrant picture of this area around the docks in Cardiff, and in particular to the Somali sailors washed up on these shores in between ships, or in the case of Mahmood Mattan with wife and children. At the beginning of the book we meet Mattan in Berlin’s milk bar, with a short description which nonetheless gives us a detailed sketch of him as illustrated in the opening quote.
Why were the Somali sailors there in Tiger Bay? Why were sailors of all nationalities there in the early fifties? The answer is obvious but who were these people? It may be difficult to give them names but Nadifa Mohamed brings to life the vibrancy by naming the jobs they filled:
Passing the shops on Bute Street, he finds a few lights still on: at Zussen’s pawnbroker’s where many of his clothes are on hock, at the Cypriot barbershop where he has his hair trimmed and at Volacki’s where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura. The tall grand windows of Cory’s Rest are steamed up, with figures laughing and dancing behind the leaded glass. He peeks his head through the door to check if some of his regulars are there, but the West Indian faces around the snooker table are unfamiliar. He had once belonged to this army of workers pulled in from all over the world, dredged in to replace the thousands of mariners lost in the war: dockers, tallymen, kickers, stevedores, winch men, hatch men, samplers, grain porters, timber porters, tackle men, yard masters, teamers, dock watchmen, needle men, ferrymen, shunters, pilots, tugboatmen, foyboatmen, freshwater men, blacksmiths, jetty clerks, warehousemen, measurers, weighers, dredgermen, lumpers, launch men, lightermen, crane drivers, coal trimmers, and his own battalion, the stokers.
Then to help us understand that immigration isn’t a new thing but is age old, Berlin tells us stories of his own from the beginning of the century, working on the skyscrapers in New York or as an exhibit in the world fair in Germany.
But the story is about a sordid crime, the murder by blade of Violet Volacki the daughter of an Eastern European Jewish father, she runs a shop on Bute street, and also cashes seaman’s cheques. Violet lives with her sister and niece, and one night opens late for a person described as black and is found dead with her throat cut 20 minutes later.
Then begins the search for the killer, a Somali had been seen in Bute street by one witness, Mattan is known to the police for petty larceny and is questioned. Nadifa Mohamed gives us a very credible insight into Mattan’s life, his way of thinking and a possible reason for his not necessarily wanting to tell where he had been.
The story is based on a true life case and the language of his defense lawyer is an eye opener to the level of casual racism at the time.
Yet another excellent choice, a must for the short list!
First Published in English as “The Fortune Men” in 2021 by Viking.