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Amanda Smyth

Peepal Tree Press, 2021

Review by Maame Blue

‘Oil is black gold,’ Eddie said. ‘We find it in unlikely places.’

Amanda Smyth’s novel Fortune is a treasure trove of hopes, dreams, schemes and emotional entanglements. Set in 1920s Trinidad at the start of the country’s oil rush, its exciting story is steeped in real history. But as the book unfolds, this isn’t quite the origin myth of the now much-criticised oil industry.

Instead, we’re introduced to Eddie Wade, who seeks his fortune in Trinidad by way of mining for oil on the private land of Sonny Chatterjee. Eddie’s story carries the narrative: all eyes are on him, and his eyes are on the oil – persevering on a gut-hunch that could put him years ahead of his contemporaries. As a reader, you persevere with him – you cannot help but like Eddie – joining the other characters in crowding around him, to hope that he succeeds as the underdog against the larger American corporations trying to swoop in on what he has. Eddie tells Sonny, the landowner,

‘I’ve learned something, Sonny, we must set our sights on the future. There’s no point looking back; we’re not going that way. Sometimes you have to destroy the old to make way for the new.’      

Eddie sets the tone for what’s to come, endearing himself slowly to Sonny to eventually get permission to drill on his land. And he could have easily been the only voice in the book, but Smyth makes it clear early on that this story isn’t just about finding fortune, it’s about changing lives, and all the things people do as they head towards that change. Smyth has a way of turning what could be a fork in the road into a many-branched and intricate tree of life. We begin with Eddie, but we soon follow Tito, Eddie’s business partner, the man behind the money with a big heart and a lost soul.

The sky was black and the air was still. Frogs were bleeping in the bush.

‘The call of love,’ Tito said. ‘You hear them? They’re wooing their beloveds.’

In the world of the novel, Tito is not supposed to be the star of the show, but you root for him anyway, because he is familiar, popular, always internally warring with himself. We all know him, somehow. Flawed as he is, Tito’s perceptions are sharp, though gently challenged by his wife Ada, a classical beauty with a longing for much more from her life.

Ada knew something was happening to her. The world looked different. The hills were greener, the sky a painting of light.

There is explosive passion amongst these characters, illuminating the backdrop of a humid island flourishing with greenery and wildlife. The prose snaps and fizzes off the page, and the end comes at you like a steam train – you know you should get out of the way but you find yourself frozen to the spot. Smyth has managed to capture possibility as it dances on the tips of people’s tongues, promising something messy and spectacular.

‘Stars are mortal, did you know? We’re looking at the glow left after they’ve long gone.’

Fortune is a masterly novel that doesn’t leave anything to chance. Make of it what you will.