The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed (Penguin/Viking)

“The King is dead. Long live the Queen. The announcer’s voice crackles from the wireless and winds around the rapt patrons of Berlin’s Milk Bar, as sinuously as the fog curls around the mournful street lamps, their wan glow barely illuminating the cobblestones.”

I let the opening sentence here run longer than usual because the quality of Nadifa’s prose is so rewarding. A writer’s writer perhaps. Here is the next sentence:

“The noise settles as milkshakes and colas click against Irish coffees, and chairs scrape against the black and white tiled floor.”

Three drinks, not one, the colour of the floor a hint at divisions. This is the sequel to her admirable first book Black Mamba Boy, not exactly but atmospherically. We have disembarked from East Africa at the traders and military front door of colonial empire, Cardiff. The book was short listed for the Booker Prize and you might think not so dissimilar to the winner The Promise, but perhaps less in tune with middle class sensibilities, not apartheid in South Africa, but discriminations from less remarked Somalia.

Spoiler alert: the New Yorker review gave away the punchline, which is a pity because not many people, I suspect, know the back story, but also the real irony here, in a glorious pathos on which the story pivots, is tossed off in a single short sentence just before the final denouement.

The Fortune Men have gambled their lives for a better world just as they gamble on the poker, the dogs, the horses, their own existences just a stake and a hope. Their arrival in Tiger Bay is as random as any ship’s crew new into a city shattered by war and influxes of generations. There is a stark image of Somali sailors wearing placards around their necks with the address of their lodging house so they can ask their way home at hight.

Nadifa’s great triumph is to somehow bring her great themes down into the characters themselves, to normalise the travails of circumventing the globe, of a black man marrying a white woman. To deal with the intersections of race, of generations and of continents (we know from Black Mamba Boy, her father was in fact very pro British, albeit for pecuniary reasons). She does this with painterly, unpolemic description:

“Violet…wears a simple navy calf-length dress and her father’s silver war badge pinned to her brassiere for courage.”

Courage because Violet also escaped to the sanctity of Cardiff, but her flight was from the Nazis. All round it feels an uncannily accurate portrayal of time and place, of people caught up in things they can hardly conceive…Nadifa may not be as fashionable as others, her subject less populist, but she is surely among the foremost women currently being published.

About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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