Debbie Jacob (Trinidad and Tobago Newsday) reviews Amanda Smyth’s latest novel Fortune (Peepal Tree Press, 2021).
The best books make the most difficult subjects for reviews. Almost anything said about the book feels like divulging secrets, and Fortune, Amanda Smyth’s latest novel, has secrets at every turn.
This we know for sure: Trinidadian-born Eddie Wade, who migrated to the US, where he gambled on finding oil wells, has returned to his roots with a mission to discover oil around 1928, when witchbroom is destroying cocoa. Before the devastating disease, Trinidad had been the third-largest cocoa producer in the world, producing 20 per cent of the world’s cocoa.
Oil is a dangerous business that suits Eddie’s adventurous nature and penchant for courting danger in work and his personal life. Now, like Apex and other oil companies, Eddie pursues Sonny Chatterjee, a failing cocoa farmer rooted in tradition, and his father’s cocoa plantation. Sonny’s land oozes oil.
As an historical novel, Fortune chronicles the rise of oil production in Trinidad and the demise of cocoa. Sonny who wears dhotis and speaks Hindi, is caught in the middle of Trinidad’s changing fortune. He clings to tradition, while his nagging wife, Sita, reminds him he is a failure. She wants to return to life before the cocoa plantation.
But there is no going back. All the characters must gamble on the future where fortune comes in many forms: good luck, misfortune and riches.
The novel begins with Eddie’s old truck breaking down in the middle of nowhere on the old Southern Main Road between Gasparillo and Chaguanas. That deceptively simple beginning proves ironic. It symbolises the wild ride ahead for all the characters. For Eddie, the inexplicable misfortune of his truck breaking down appears fortunate, because it causes him to meet Tito Fernandes, a businessman whom Eddie hopes to enlist in his efforts to convince Sonny to destroy his land for the sake of drilling oil.
Tito once studied to become a doctor in Dublin, but, unlike Eddie, he realised he could not live abroad. Tito appears to be a gentle soul, but rumours suggest a dark secret in his past, which I won’t reveal. He worships his much-younger wife Ada, whom Tito describes as “a girl with too much beauty.”
Tito tells her “Don’t break my heart…Break my bones instead.”
[. . .] Though never spelled out, there is a David-and-Goliath element playing out in Fortune. Smyth masters the fine art of creating a compelling story as much from what is not said as what is said. Talk of angels often surfaces. Demons are never mentioned, but readers sense their presence as much as they grasp the polarised nature of fortune, which is left unsaid. [. . .]
Oil is a fitting metaphor for the constant tension that bubbles to the surface. Sonny, Tito, Eddie and Charles possess opposing values and their relationships with each other collide over oil. The wives create additional problems. Always playing with feelings about to explode, Smyth offers revealing descriptions of complex characters, yet leaves enough unspoken to make her characters mysterious. [. . .]
By the end of the book, anecdotes which form indelible images in the readers’ mind merge like frames in a movie. Fortune is much more than a pivotal historical moment capturing the demise of the cocoa industry and the rise of oil. It is a harrowing vision of environmental disaster, cultural erosion and personal demise. In many ways, it is a classic man-against-nature story, but most of all it is the story of relationships. [. . .]
[Photo above by Marlon James. Amanda Smyth explores the secrets of her characters’ lives in Fortune, a historical novel set in Trinidad in the oil, cocoa era.]