Somaliland-born author Nadifa Mohamed’s “The Fortune Men” has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021.
The shortlist for the prestigious literary prize awarded each year for the best novel written in English and published in the UK or Ireland was announced on Tuesday (Sep. 14).
Nadifa Mohamed was born in Somaliland and raised in Britain and her book is set in the docks of post-war Cardiff Bay. It fictionalizes the story of Mahmood Mattan, a real Somaliland sailor who was wrongly accused of murder.
We first meet the Somaliland sailor Mahmood Mattan, in Nadifa Mohamed’s Booker-shortlisted novel, in a bar in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay on the day of the death of King George VI in 1952. He’s there with other Somalians and a ragtag of men blown in from the four corners of the British Empire, who have made a hardscrabble home among the “low slung, windblown terraces” of the Butetown housing estate, and to their ears, the radio announcer with his “white bow-tie” voice might as well live on a different planet.
Yet Mattan, a real historical figure, would soon come face to face with the British establishment. Later that year, he was wrongfully convicted and executed for the murder of Lily Volpert, a Jewish shopkeeper found with her throat cut. At his trial, even his defense counsel called this speaker of five languages a “semi-civilized savage”. His conviction, procured on the flimsiest of evidence, was overturned in 1998 after it emerged the police had pressurized a witness.
From these bare facts, Mohamed has fashioned a novel heaving with life. It takes place at a seismic moment in British history, as the empire that turned so much of the map pink is starting its slow but inexorable retreat. But it is Mattan who is the novel’s chaotic animating force, a former stoker who has traveled the world by ship and has three little boys by his estranged Welsh wife, Laura. He’s a ducker and a diver, a gambler and a womanizer, a devoted father and petty criminal, a joker, and a dreamer.
In Mohamed’s tender, unsentimental reimagining, he is characterized more by circumstance than by fixed characteristics, and it is a problem of the novel that you are never entirely sure whether his unstable, elusive quality is an intentional narrative effect.
Like Mohamed’s two previous novels, set in Yemen and Somaliland respectively, The Fortune Men excavates the forgotten reaches of British colonial history. Its view is panoramic, roving deep into Mattan’s childhood in British Somaliland and taking care also to memorialize Volpert, here reimagined as Violet Volacki, who lives in fear of a brick smashing through her window, anti-Semitism being almost as rife in 1950s Britain as hatred of the black man.
At the same time, it revels in the everyday rituals of Butetown: Jewish festivals, Hindi spices, Muslim prayers, The Ink Spots on the gramophone. The purposeful detail is an implicit corrective to all the times when the lives of people like Mattan have not been considered at all.
Sometimes Mohamed’s thoroughness betrays her. Much of the dialogue feels self-conscious, perhaps because she tries to honor the polyglot voices of Tiger Bay. Large chunks of backstory stymie the narrative, but Laura, the Welsh girl who defied her family to marry Mattan, remains regrettably inscrutable.
Yet by the end, the novel achieves a strange psychological potency. Mattan, praying properly for the first time in his prison cell, finally accepts there will be no 11th-hour pardon. Instead, full of terror and fury, but also peace, he begins to sing. “I will wrap the road around my waist like a belt and walk the earth, even if no one sees me.”
The list includes three American writers and, for the second year in a row, only one British author.
The longlisted authors who missed out on the Booker Prize 2021 included Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.
The best-known novelists who did make the cut are Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer Richard Powers and Damon Galgut, from South Africa, who has been nominated for the Booker twice before.
The prestigious British-based £50,000 award is open to any authors writing in English, and the scarcity of UK authors was “just a coincidence”, according to one judge.
“While judging the Booker Prize we look at not just what the writers are saying but how they are saying it, and therefore nationalities do not really matter,” Chigozie Obioma said.
Last year, the sole British representative, Douglas Stuart, went on to win. This year, British-Somaliland Nadifa Mohamed is nominated for her third novel The Fortune Men.
The Booker Prize 2021 nominees:
- Anuk Arudpragasam – A Passage North. In his second novel, the Sri Lankan author explores the lasting effects of both the trauma and violence of his country’s civil war and a past love affair. “We felt that he was taking on with great seriousness this question of, how can you grasp the present, while also trying to make sense of the past?” said judge Horatia Harrod.
- Damon Galgut – The Promise. The South African writer’s ninth novel follows a white family over the decades from pre- to post-Apartheid. “The ultimate question that the novel asks is, is justice – true justice – possible in this world?” Obioma said. “If it is, then what might that look like?”
- Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This. This is the first novel by the American poet and memoirist. It follows a woman catapulted to social media fame, told using what Booker judge Rowan Williams described as the “unpromising medium of online prattle”. When reality impinges on this online existence, it ends up being a story “with intense, emotional energy and truthfulness”.
- Nadifa Mohamed – The Fortune Men. Mohamed was born in Somaliland and raised in Britain, and her book is set in the docks of post-war Cardiff Bay. It fictionalizes the story of Mahmood Mattan, a real Somaliland sailor who was wrongly accused of murder. “This is a story about the past that has great significance for the present,” said judging chair Maya Jasanoff.
- Richard Powers – Bewilderment. The US author won the Pulitzer for his last novel The Overstory. Here, a widowed astrobiologist turns to experimental treatments to help his nine-year-old “special needs” son – and take him to other planets. It is “a clarion call for us all to wake up and realize what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo,” judge Natascha McElhone said.
- Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle. Another American author, Shipstead’s third novel intertwines the stories of a daring post-war female pilot and a 21st century Hollywood actress who is trying to rescue her reputation by making a film about her. It “speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraints, particularly in women’s lives”, Jasanoff said.
Chair of the judges, Maya Jasanoff said: “Our shortlist is immersive – stories that you can get absorbed in, voices that get inside your head, which feels quite reflective of the experience of reading in lockdown.
“Our shortlist is global – in their authors and their settings – which feels transporting in a year when so many of us have been confined to home.
“And our shortlist engages with matters of life and death, which feels quite poignant and pertinent in this catastrophic year.
The Fortune Men is published by Viking at £14.99.
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