In 1952, a young Somali sailor named Mahmood Mattan was arrested for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales, a crime he did not commit but nonetheless was convicted of and hanged for. This true story is the inspiration behind Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful Booker Prize short-listed novel, The Fortune Men, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.
In the 1950s, the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff is a multiracial, multilingual community of Somalis, Arabs, Jews, West Indians and West Africans. It’s also the home of Mattan, his Welsh wife and their three sons. When Violet Volacki is stabbed in her shop, her sister, Diana, thinks she sees a Somali at the door. A gambler and petty thief, Mattan tries to ignore the tidal wave of suspicion flowing from the police, his landlord, even the men at his mosque. But he grossly underestimates the racism of the local community, which wants to punish not only him but also his wife for marrying an African immigrant. Mattan’s protestations of innocence and his belief in the British justice system are no match for the prosecution’s fabricated testimonies and false witness statements.
Mohamed brilliantly re-creates Tiger Bay’s bustling world of racetracks, milk bars and rooming houses, filled with diverse characters who range from the bigoted detectives to the sheikh from the local mosque. Part of the novel is told by Diana, whose family immigrated to England to escape antisemitic violence in Russia and who never names Mattan as the man she saw, despite pressure from police. The Fortune Men is a reminder of a particularly egregious example of injustice and prejudice, but by including Diana’s point of view, Mohamed suggests that Mattan’s experience is not an isolated incident but one that was and is repeated wherever systemic racism exists.
In the real-world case, after decades of campaigning by his family and the wider Somali community, Mattan was exonerated. His name was cleared almost 50 years after his death, and the wrongful conviction and execution was the first miscarriage of justice ever rectified by the British courts. But these events happened decades after the action in Mohamed’s novel. She instead focuses on Mattan’s childhood in Hargeisa, his globetrotting years with the merchant navy and his final weeks in a Welsh jail, where a renewal of faith leads to a new assessment of life. Mohamed’s command of both Mattan’s place in the historical record and the intimate details of his life makes for a remarkable novel.
A true story inspired Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful novel, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.
Juhea Kim’s accomplished first novel, Beasts of a Little Land, opens in 1917, deep in the frozen Korean wilderness, where a penniless hunter saves a young Japanese military officer from a vicious tiger. The act sets in motion a story that spans half a century and explores the peninsula’s complex history of Japanese occupation, multiple wars and South Korea’s anti-communism purges of the early 1960s.
The novel artfully follows the life of Jade, a girl from an impoverished family who goes to work as a servant for a courtesan, Madame Silver. There she meets two other young women: quietly beautiful Luna and brash, outspoken Lotus. The three eventually come to Seoul, where they study the art of pleasing men at one of the city’s most celebrated and cosmopolitan houses.
Jade’s wit and intelligence take her to the very peak of high society and even into the Korean film industry, while Luna and Lotus struggle through careers marred by sexual assault and drug use. As the three women strive for independence, they are continually disappointed by the men closest to them, including loyal gang leader JungHo, who befriends Jade when they are children, and ambitious rickshaw driver HanChol, who becomes Jade’s lover but refuses to marry her. Jade and Lotus spurn the lavish attentions of wealthy but superficial SungSoo, and at the same time, SungSoo’s school friend MyungBo tries to involve Jade and JungHo in his revolutionary plans for Korean independence from Japan.
One of Kim’s core strengths is casting 20th-century Korea’s civic and social history as vital while never losing sight of her characters’ emotions. As the paths of her characters twist and cross, albeit with far too many coincidences, and their fortunes rise and fall, she keeps the weight of the personal and political in perfect balance. Beasts of a Little Land is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.
Juhea Kim’s debut novel is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.
Jung Yun’s second novel is a riveting story of a Korean American woman claiming a country that has done its best to reject her.
After decades as a model, Elinor Hanson went back to school and reinvented herself as a journalist. Barely supporting herself with freelance work, she is surprised when one of her graduate school professors offers her a plum assignment: covering North Dakota’s oil boom for a prominent magazine. Elinor, who grew up on a U.S. Air Force base in North Dakota, is curious about the changes this new gold rush has created, so she agrees to travel home.
Elinor barely recognizes the state she left behind. Its small towns burst with new arrivals seeking opportunities, and fracking has all but destroyed the land. But the anxiety expressed by longtime residents is dishearteningly familiar to Elinor, and her encounters with sexism and racism quickly bring back the trauma of life on the air base. Elinor is the daughter of an American airman and a Korean woman who met overseas, and on the base, other wives withheld their friendship from Elinor’s mother, while other husbands were all too willing to flirt.
As Elinor grapples with the difficult assignment, she is drawn into an unsolved missing persons case: a white woman who disappeared while jogging eight years ago. But that story doesn’t allow her to forge fresh investigative paths or distract from the rage she realizes has been simmering since her teens. In fact, the longer Elinor stays in North Dakota, the angrier she becomes, and a meeting with her sister only exacerbates the flood of bad memories. When some of her former classmates reach out about a harassment suit against her professor, she begins to question his motivations in passing on the assignment in the first place.
O Beautiful moves swiftly, with all the force of a finely honed thriller. As Elinor reckons with her past and the ways people have treated her, her mother and her sisters, she begins to examine the anger and love she feels for both her family and country. Open-ended and openhearted, O Beautiful may provide Elinor with more questions than answers, but it also instills in her a newfound determination to claim America as her own
Open-ended and open-hearted, O Beautiful instills a newfound determination in its Korean American heroine to claim America as her own.
While searching through her dead mother’s possessions, Anna Bain finds an old journal of her father’s, a discovery that she hopes will offer clarity about a person she never really knew. So begins Chibundu Onuzo’s third novel, Sankofa, an enjoyably readable novel that raises questions of belonging and the search for personal roots.
Francis Aggrey’s diary offers important clues about his identity. He was a young student from a small West African country, here fictionalized as Bamana but bearing some resemblance to Ghana, and attended college in 1970s London. He boarded with a white Welsh family and began a romantic relationship with the younger daughter, Bronwen—Anna’s mother—before becoming involved in radical politics and returning to Bamana.
Anna is shocked to find out that after years of political activism, Francis became the prime minister of his country under the name Kofi Adjei. Even more amazing, the former leader is still alive. Upon learning this information, Anna finds herself at a crux in her own life, separated from her husband and with no real ties to London, and so she journeys to Bamana to find her father.
One of the strengths of Sankofa is that Anna must consistently confront notions of difference and acceptance. She was never comfortable growing up biracial in 1980s London, and her experience in Bamana is no less disorienting, especially because she passes for white among the local population. It is even more challenging for her to hear reports about her father that aren’t positive; as much as he has accomplished for his country, there are rumors that he suppressed free speech and quashed student rebellions. Yet there is no question that for Anna, meeting her father provides a sense of stability and of self that she’s never really known.
Onuzo’s disarmingly frank novel contends with complex issues of identity and prejudice, and it doesn’t sugarcoat its depiction of the fractured history of a developing country. Onuzo sets Anna on a path that can only be completed when she begins to come to terms with her past.
Chibudno Onuzo’s novel is enjoyably readable and disarmingly frank as it follows a woman in search of her father.
Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, her highly anticipated follow-up to Fates and Furies (2015), takes place almost 800 years ago, yet it feels both current and timely. Set in a small convent in 12th-century England, Matrix looks back in time to comment astutely on the world as we now know it, exploring big ideas about faith, gender, community and individualism.
Abbess Marie is based in part on Marie de France, France’s earliest known female poet and one of the country’s most well-regarded literary stylists. As a teenager, Groff’s fictional Marie is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court and sent to molder in an impoverished abbey. Marie soon rises to the senior position of abbess, and she transforms the convent into a thriving estate.
Marie’s modifications to the abbey are guided by visions that draw imagery from the real Marie de France’s tales of courtly love. These visions are the motivation and impetus for many of Marie’s boldest innovations: the successful scriptorium where gorgeous new manuscripts are produced; the abbess house where Marie offers comfort and privacy; and the impenetrable labyrinth that girds the abbey, protecting the women who live inside.
Groff brings a bold originality to Matrix and a compassion for her characters, no matter how prickly some of them may be. This is a heartening story of one woman’s vision and creativity, unthwarted and flourishing, despite all odds.
A 12th-century abbess deserves to be your next literary hero. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns.
Lauren Groff’s fourth novel, Matrix, is a mesmerizing portrait of a remarkable nun in 12th-century England who oversees an abbey in a rapidly changing and sometimes hostile environment. After Groff’s previous books, which have explored small towns, utopian communities and Floridian flora and fauna, my most pressing questions for the author can be boiled down to, why a novel about nuns? And why now?
“Those are the questions,” Groff says with a laugh, speaking by video call from a writer’s retreat in Italy. She traces the novel’s genesis back to three years ago, when she was at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, working on a very different novel, one she hopes that at some point will come into the world. “I was surrounded by artists and scholars that were doing things that were so far beyond my ken,” she recalls. “Every day was like a mini-explosion in my brain.”
She attended a lecture on medieval nuns by Dr. Katie Bugyis, who has researched the lives of nuns based on the liturgy they produced and used. “It was as if she had opened up my brain and threw her light in,” Groff says. “I knew it was the next thing I was going to write.”
“Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
Marie, the nun protagonist of Matrix, is banished from Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court at age 17 and sent to live in a penurious abbey. Awkward and miserable, Marie makes the best of her situation and soon rises to the senior position of abbess. Bit by bit she transforms the tumbledown, muddy convent into a prosperous estate with verdant fields, healthy flocks and a successful scriptorium, protected by a forest labyrinth and Marie’s shrewd awareness of shifting political winds. Along the way, she is inspired by spiritual visions and memories of her mother’s family, whom she accompanied on the early Crusades.
Marie’s story is based on that of Marie de France, considered to be one of France’s most important writers and the country’s first acknowledged female poet. So little is known about Marie that her biography is merely outline; Groff describes trying to research her as “being handed a poetic form.”
But we do know some things about her, Groff says. “We know approximately when she lived and where. We know she was a noble or gentlewoman because she was able to write in several languages. She was educated at a time when most women were not. And most importantly, we know what she wrote: fables and lais,” or narrative poems of courtly love.
Elements from Marie’s lais appear throughout Matrix, which is rich with furled rosebuds, blooming trees and enclosed gardens. “It was a joyous experience to go back to the lais, which I knew from college, and to create her life from the work,” Groff says. “I know it’s the opposite of what scholars do, but I’m not a scholar, I’m a fiction writer.”
Groff did a tremendous amount of research for Matrix, including visiting a small Benedictine convent in Connecticut where she was struck by the strong ties of kinship and community. “I was profoundly moved by the way the older nuns, who are not far from death, are cared for by the people who love them so deeply,” she says. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”
Groff drew from this idyllic setting to create her fictional community of sisters. Marie’s convent is a place of female friendships and love affairs, scholarship and learning. It’s a refuge for outsider women and those with untapped talents, ranging from engineering to calligraphy to animal husbandry. “I wanted to live in a world of women,” Groff says. “I wanted to hear women’s voices, experience only a female gaze.”
Examining the balance of community and the individual is nothing new for Groff, whose novels The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia also examined small-town life and intentional communities. Even Fates and Furies depicts a closed community of two people whose insular marriage makes it difficult for anyone else to penetrate their intense bond.
“You know,” Groff remarks ruefully, “I keep thinking I’m writing a brand-new book, but maybe I’m writing the same thing every time. I was raised in the small town of Cooperstown, New York, and I was utterly fascinated by the way individuals acted within a tight and closed community. It was early training for storytelling to be among growing, living stories of other people that you could watch out of the corner of your eye. A small place in the middle of nowhere was a real petri dish for understanding human behavior.”
Even though the world of Matrix could not seem further away from 21st-century America, Groff is well aware of how current affairs informed the writing of her new novel—and indeed, all of her work. “It’s very much in our national DNA to insist on the importance of the individual,” she says. “But a country cannot be a country without the collective, and right now the pressure points between these two courses are rising. My work struggles with this paradox and explores how Americans are choosing to live.”
At several points in the novel, Marie experiences striking visions that she does not share with the other nuns but rather keeps in a series of private notebooks. These visions draw imagery and language from the Bible, a seminal book in Groff’s upbringing and an early step to her lifelong love of literature.
Groff was raised in the Presbyterian church, where her father was a deacon, and she remembers the church of her childhood as a vaulted, soaring space, “like the inside of a whale.” The experience of being in communion with others while singing or praying had a meaningful aesthetic impact. But it was the stories from the Bible that hooked her.
“Stories are the thing that made me a person,” she says. “I was the kind of kid who was filled with religious fervor. I had a beautiful little Bible with fine tissue pages and gilt edges. I would sit and read it at night, just trying to get through all the begats and the thous, and just be filled with this unappeasable longing for the stories. And then I started seeing the stories reflected back at me from the other things I was reading. It was such an exciting feeling, like an electrical charge, to see biblical stories echoing in literature.”
Over time, Groff explains, literature took the place of religion. “I’ve become a secular believer, if that makes sense. I believe in the goodness of humanity. I am moved by the natural world in a way that is akin to the kinds of things I experienced as a child. When I am writing, I try to give the reader a few of those moments of wonder and awe. Awe is the most powerful emotion I know, because within awe, there is fear, there is love, there is wonder.”
The awe-filled moments in Matrix are too many to count, whether in the poetry of Marie’s visions, her longing for friends who are far away or the vivid descriptions of the creation of the labyrinth, a structure associated with religious contemplation that in Groff’s hands becomes a symbol, a weapon and a line of defense.
Marie conceives of the labyrinth less as a place for the nuns to find peace and more as an instrument to separate themselves from the outside world, which she perceives as dangerous and threatening. For Groff, the symbol of the labyrinth goes even deeper. She read about ancient ruins in England that had been buried underground over centuries and were now re-emerging. “Because of climate change and the wet ground drying out, the impressions of these ruins are literally coming up from the earth and becoming apparent,” she says. “I loved that idea of a hidden structure that only through trauma could be revealed. The novel is structured around the shape of a labyrinth, although it’s deeply embedded and I’m not sure anyone can see it. But it’s there.”
Matrix tells a tale of the astounding ingenuity, strength and female companionship that flourished during an era of intense patriarchal oppression. Matrix is the Latin word for mother, but additional definitions include a plant whose seeds were used for producing other plants, a grid, an organizational structure and, perhaps most significantly, “the bedrock in geology in which you find gems.”
Groff has created a labyrinth of jewel-like moments, selected from an incredible woman’s life during a time ostensibly far away from our own, and transformed it into a novel that is perfect for right now.
Author photo by Eli Sinkus
Matrix author Lauren Groff shares how she found refuge in her latest novel’s community of nuns. “It’s a definition of family that is not often represented in the outside world.”
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