Fortune: A novel with the momentum and power of a Greek tragedy

Book review: Amanda Smyth’s evocations of Trinidad are astonishingly vivid and rich

The dreamlike quality of Amanda Smyth’s prose gives the characters in Fortune the feel of sleepwalkers, blindly drawn to their doom. Photograph: Lee Thomas

The dreamlike quality of Amanda Smyth’s prose gives the characters in Fortune the feel of sleepwalkers, blindly drawn to their doom. Photograph: Lee Thomas

Sat, Oct 16, 2021, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Fortune

ISBN-13:
978-1845235192

Author:
Amanda Smyth

Publisher:
Peepal Tree Press

Guideline Price:
£9.99

Fortune, Amanda Smyth’s third novel, is set in Trinidad in the 1920s, and begins with a breakdown. The stalled truck belongs to Eddie Wade, recently returned after working on the oilfields in Texas. After waiting in vain for a car to come by, Eddie starts to walk back to the city. The heat is palpable: “Cicadas were clacking and droning, a loud, unnatural, mechanical sound, as if something mighty was about to explode.”

Nothing explodes – for now. Instead, Eddie is picked up by Tito Fernandes, a wealthy businessman in a brand-new Model T. Eddie tells Tito about his visit to Sonny Chatterjee, the owner of an ailing cocoa plantation. Harvests have been waning, but the land is reputed to be sitting on a bonanza: crude oil “seen pooling at the foot of a tree, swirling on the skin of Godineau river . . . running free like honey along the path to Sonny’s door”.

Scenes on the drill site, where the men go to work half-expecting to be killed, are as taut and suspenseful as any action movie

Sonny, wary of the wreckage incurred by exploration, won’t allow the big companies to drill, but Eddie thinks he can talk him around. Tito, charmed by Eddie, agrees to front him the money he needs. From that first encounter, the two men form a partnership that seems unstoppable – until chance intervenes again, in the form of Ada, Tito’s lovely, restless wife.

Smyth, whose father is from Sligo, grew up in Trinidad and her evocations of the island’s natural beauty are astonishingly vivid and rich. But she’s equally strong on the forces poised to destroy it. The scenes on the drill site, where the men go to work half-expecting to be killed, are as taut and suspenseful as any action movie. The friendship between loner Eddie and soft, wounded Tito, meanwhile, is beautifully rendered, and makes Eddie’s betrayal of Tito with Ada all the more poignant.

The novel doesn’t judge: fortune is calling the shots here. Though her characters burn with passion, greed, desperation, the dreamlike quality of Smyth’s prose gives them the feel of sleepwalkers, blindly drawn to their doom. That inescapable sense of fate slowly builds throughout the novel, giving this brilliant reimagining of real events – the Dome Fire of 1928 in which 17 people were killed – the momentum and power of a Greek tragedy.