I’m still thinking about a scene from Gary Shteyngart’s 2018 novel “Lake Success,” which was his first book before this year’s excellent one. My copy doesn’t have the exact quote, but he made the point that we’re all looking for a sign that our journey is unique.
As I read the following passage from Mahmood’s final days in prison in Mohamed’s novel, I couldn’t help but think of Shteyngart. I’ll break it up into two sections because it’s so long. With a focus on his love of filmmaking, this is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year:
Despite the fact that Mahmood has lost all sense of self-importance over the past few months, he is extraordinary and his life has been exceptional. he’s seen and done, the things he got away with, the punishments he’s received, and how everything once seemed to bend to his will when he used great force. His life has been, and continues to be, a kaleidoscope of extras, exotic locations, and lavish sets. As he struts from scene to scene, he leaves behind a trail of film and miles of dialogue in his wake.
When he thinks about his movie, he sees the cobblestone prison yard and his thoughtful, upturned face, with smoke billowing from the corner of his dark lips, as if it were a still photograph. It must be a colour film. On one sunny day, the hero walks out to freedom with his wife in his arms. It’s got it all: humour; music; dance; travel; murder; wrong man caught; corrupt trial; a race against time; and finally, the happy ending. Mahmood appears to be smiling in the photograph.
My god, oh man. Despite this, “The Fortune Men” does not feature many reverberant passages. An excessive amount of momentum is lost early on when switching back and forth between the stories of Mahmood’s shopkeeper wife and her family, his estranged wife and their two children, and Mahmood himself. There is a lot of information that isn’t shown in the scenes.
A tiny amount of momentum accumulates. As soon as Mahmood’s real life begins to encroach on the narrative, the story begins to feel constrained. The plot is only loosely connected. You’d never have to wonder about the pea if this book were a game of shells. You give it three stars in your head, but you only give it two in your heart.
Mahmood and his English wife, for example, are mysterious to us. I wish there had been more scenes of them courting and courting each other, as that would have helped flesh out his character arc.
In the end, Mahmood had few friends and a lot of enemies. In England, he was becoming increasingly isolated and lonesome. Someone could easily come along and cut off the branch because he was black.
Mohamed has a lot of potential, and she’s just getting started with this novel.