By Amanda Castro Thijssen
In Western Cemetery, Cardiff, a tombstone with the particular epitaph ‘Killed by Injustice’ can be found. This is where Mahmood Mattan was reinterred in 1996, after being hanged in prison in 1952. Mahmood was a Somali merchant and sailor who settled in Cardiff after falling in love with a Welsh woman. At the age of twenty-nine, he was falsely accused of murdering Lily Volpert. Lily had owned a shop until one night, shortly after closing time, her throat had been slit and a hundred pounds had been stolen from the safe. The police interrogated those in the surroundings and visited different boarding houses, including the one Mahmood was staying in. Mahmood gave a statement showing his innocence and nothing suspicious was found in the room. Nevertheless, he was arrested a few days after. Six months later, Mahmood would be the last person to be hanged in a British prison and almost seventy years later The Fortune Men, a novel about the last months of his life, would appear.
The book, published in 2021 and written by Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed, fictionalises Mahmood’s story and paints the portrait of a man who, despite the circumstances, showed hope until the very end. Mohamed came across Mahmood’s case in 2004 and began writing The Fortune Men in 2015 because of her personal connections with the story. Her father had also been a Somali sailor and had, in fact, known Mahmood, as they were of the same age and had both settled in Cardiff around the same time. Moreover, Mohamed’s uncle had been murdered in front of his shop in a similar way to Lily, whose name is changed to Violet in the narrative as requested by her family. Having written about Somali experiences and injustices against Somalis in the United Kingdom before, both in the form of novels and essays, Mohamed has now become the first Somali-British author to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
The novel is written in a detailed but simple style, immersing the reader in the multicultural society of Tiger Bay, now known as Cardiff Bay. Until the scene of the trial, the reader follows both the lives of Mahmood and Diana, Violet’s sister. Diana is in mourning and looking forward to the moment the trial ends, so she can let go of what she calls the “public business of grief” as people are endlessly visiting her and reminding her of her sister’s death. Indeed, after the trial scene, written in the curious form of a Q&A, the reader never hears about her again. The lives of both families are, nevertheless, forever connected, as Mahmood realises the thread of his life was cut the moment Violet was murdered. The author acknowledges their ties by dedicating her work to both Lily and Mahmood, who share an unjust death.
In the story, Mahmood is a thief who has no shame in admitting his crimes. Nevertheless, as an innocent in this case, he grows tired of the corruption and prejudices in British institutions. He is aware of the fact that he is constantly being treated differently because of his skin colour and does not hesitate to speak out about it to those in his surroundings, who, as the novel progresses, become almost exclusively white. The narration and epilogue reveal how the police wilfully ignored statements that exculpated Mahmood and even bribed witnesses to adapt their stories and frame him as guilty. Mahmood’s lawyer never shows sympathy for his client, and even calls him a savage during the trial. These instances of discrimination are based on authentic events and show, as mentioned by the author in an interview with The Times, that “[e]ven if he [Mahmood] was not the actual killer, he was the kind of man who they imagined might harm them, and for that, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.”
Despite the constant accusations, Mahmood never loses hope. He believes in the importance of sharing his truth and asks both the police and the guards at prison to write down his version of the events, so he can die knowing he has done everything in his power to prove his innocence. He constantly prays and promises his children that he will be back home soon. Mahmood’s trust in righteousness leads him to establish what he believes to be an almost friendly relationship with the guards stationed by his cell. His overall optimism makes the last scenes in the book even more harrowing. On his eldest son’s birthday, the guards move the wardrobe in Mahmood’s cell, revealing an adjacent room with a noose hanging from the ceiling and an ugly truth: Mahmood was doomed to be hanged from the moment he entered prison. The execution scene is hard to read, as Mahmood’s calm nature is transformed into complete panic and utter disappointment as he approaches the rope. The countdown and the praying reinforce the sense of urgency and the inevitability of the act.
Mahmood is executed without a chance of saying goodbye to his family. Following the last chapter, a scanned news report can be found, in which Mahmood’s wife is described crying outside of the prison. At the end of the news report, it is Lily’s name that appears, instead of Violet’s. This is a moment of realisation for the reader who does not know about the authentic story behind the book. The epilogue recounts the real-life efforts of Mahmood’s family to clear his name, finally leading to his case becoming the first rectified miscarriage of justice by the British Supreme Court in 1998. However, that same year five other black and mixed-race men were wrongly accused in the case of the Cardiff Five, showing how Mahmood’s arrest was not unique, but rather part of a system of internalised prejudices.
The Fortune Men is powerful in its representation of racism and its capacity to create empathy with the innocent Mahmood. Nevertheless, it comes as a surprise that it has reached the shortlist for this year’s Booker Prize. The novel, with its straightforwardness and simple prose, does not seem especially suited for multiple re-readings. The possibility of seeing Mahmood walking out of jail and the question of who murdered Violet are what keep the book interesting, at least for the reader that ignores the real-life story behind it. It is, without doubt, the social relevance of the plot that has allowed it to be nominated. Even though The Fortune Men is a historical novel, the institutional racism in it resonates with murders such as those of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor in the United States. Many have now turned to analyse institutional racism in their own countries, as Mohamed does in her book. By nominating it, the Booker Prize has taken a political stand, acknowledging the truth about discrimination in the United Kingdom. Moreover, as a literary prize, it has once again shown the everlasting power of fiction as a way to reflect on our current society.
Amanda Castro Thijssen is a postgraduate student of literature at Utrecht University, specialising in comparative Anglophone literature, and has just finished an internship at publishing house Luitingh-Sijthoff. Moreover, she has worked as an editor for Frame: Journal of Literary Studies, collaborating in issues about feminist bodies, activism, and law, and has written as a columnist for feminist organisation Women’s March Nederland. She is a Chief Editor of RevUU.
- Mohamed, Nadifa. The Fortune Men. Viking, 2021.
- “Nadifa Mohamed Tells the Real-Life Story That Inspired her Booker-Shortlisted Novel The Fortune Men.” The Times, 3 Oct. 2021, thetimes.co.uk/article/nadifa-mohamed-tellsthe-real-life-story-that-inspired-her-bookershortlisted-novel-the-fortune-of-mencfzhg6qc8. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
- Mohamed, Safia. “‘Killed by injustice’: The Hanging of a British Somali.” BBC News, 28 Jan. 2019, bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/hanging_of_british_somali_mahmood_mattan. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.