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The Crack Magazine

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The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Mahmood Hussein Mattan was a much-travelled former merchant seaman from Somalia who eventually settled in Tiger Bay in the docks district of Cardiff. It was here that me met, and married, Laura Williams – a worker at the local paper factory. This was in the late 1940s, and, needless to say, as a multiracial couple the pair suffered a certain amount of racist abuse from the community. They would go on to have three children but separated in 1950. (They ended up living in separate houses on the same street). In 1952, a local shop owner, Lily Volpert – who was living in the same part of Cardiff – was just about to have her evening meal when she heard the doorbell of her shop ring. She left the table, answered the door, and was subsequently murdered. Despite a lack of evidence Mahmood Mattan was arrested for her murder, tried and then hanged in 1952. His conviction was eventually quashed in 1998. Nadifa Mohamd’s fictionalised account of these events – which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – is a real tour-de-force and has unsettling echoes that reverberate to this day. What she doesn’t do is turn Mattan into a saint. Here he’s a real Jack-the-lad chancer, forever on the cadge, but he’s also a man imbued with great personal charm, and when he is arrested he fully expects British justice to do its job and exonerate him. That it didn’t remains shocking. RM