Nadifa Mohamed’s fictional account of wrongly-convicted Mahmood Mattan’s life has rightly been shortlisted for the Booker Prize
On 3rd September 1952, Mahmood Mattan—a 28-year-old British Somali seaman—became the last person to be hanged in Wales. His alleged crime was murdering a local shopkeeper, Lily Volpert, but he was convicted with scant evidence. In 1998, 46 years after his execution, his conviction was quashed by three Appeal Court judges and the family awarded substantial compensation. Lily Volpert’s murder remains unsolved.
Nadifa Mohamed’s fictional account of this real-life miscarriage of justice has quite rightly been longlisted for the Booker Prize. A British novelist who was born in Somalia, Mohamed is the author of two previous novels, including the award-winning Black Mamba Boy. She tackles this largely forgotten story with skill and empathy.
In Mohamed’s version, the victim becomes Violet Volacki, who lives with her sister Diana and niece Grace on the premises of the family shop. They are Jewish, and Violet is haunted by the recent fate of their relatives in Europe and fearful for the family’s safety. Tiger Bay—the Cardiff docks area where both the victim and accused lived—is beautifully evoked, its streets busy with Somali and West Indian sailors, Maltese businessmen and Jewish families; a young Shirley Bassey is even referred to.
The chief warder of the prison Mattan is detained in tells the prisoner: “Fair dealing is what we’re known for—that and tea, right?” and, tragically, Mattan is inclined to believe him. Mattan is a gambler and a petty thief, not always gentle with his Welsh wife Laura, but Mohamed nonetheless skilfully conveys how rich his life is. He is well-travelled and a polyglot, as well as the adoring father of three young sons: David, Omar and Mervyn. Laura tells him: “You picked up this wet-behind-the-ears Valleys girl and made her feel like the Queen of England.”
The family scenes are heartbreaking as Mattan desperately waits to appeal his conviction. Even though we know the outcome, the conclusion to Mattan’s life—in Mohamed’s hands—becomes utterly gripping.