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.”
The age difference poses problems.
Often depressed, Tito gambles his way through life, using his father’s business as collateral. He broadens and expands the family business, graduating from food items to shoes, cloth, ornaments, fine wines, ice machines and a pasta machine to make spaghetti. Money is always on his mind, but it never evokes happiness.
Then there is Charles Macleod, a Texas oilman from the rival Apex oil company. He finds Trinidad “saturated in oil.” His wife, Elsie, hates the island and wants to flee. She sees death – not opportunity – all around her as bush fires, cane fires and oil-well fires create real threats and symbolise dreams constantly going up in smoke.
Macleod has his strategy to deal with Eddie and Tito, and it creates conflict that drives the story. Macleod serves as a threat because he has better equipment, more finances and more experience in the oil business.
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.
Most of the children in the novel are sickly or don’t survive, symbolising an uncertain future. Tito’s daughter Flora offers promise, but she dreams of skeletons and sees death coming. One child alluded to plays an important role while never appearing in the story. She merely evokes elusive dreams.
Snippets of history weave their way through Fortune, touching on civil unrest, a riot over proposed water meters and the developing oil business. The research is astounding, but even more impressive is how it enhances the story – never weighing it down with heavy details.
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.
She evokes setting with rich imagery, packing each sentence with sensory descriptions. As with Ernest Hemingway, no word is ever wasted, yet I can’t think of another writer who packs so much imagery into each sentence.
While the focus of Fortune is oil, readers will realise this is also a novel about migration, relationships, love, greed, deception and taking risks. It will require re-reading for the sheer beauty of the language and the need to ponder symbolic anecdotes that readers might overlook on that first read because it is easy to be swept up in the plot.
Confessions contrast with secrets. Prophecies, including one by a Hopi Indian in Arizona, foreshadow the future. Calming descriptions of the setting juxtaposed with plot-driven tension enhance conflicts. Only in the end is it possible to see the brilliant structure of the novel, which pairs off characters with their conflicts: tradition vs progress, rebellion vs conformity, luck vs fate.
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.
“We all like to feel we can achieve something. That we have a choice in the way our lives turn out,” Tito’s mother says.
Some of the secrets in Fortune are so subtle you won’t realise they serve as important narrative threads until the end of the novel, when, if you’re like me, you will gasp at the realisation that this book might have been about something totally different from what you thought in the beginning. Smyth pulls off allegory, perhaps the deepest and most difficult level of creativity to penetrate, on the level of Rohinton Mistry.
When Fortune hits the bookshops in June, Smyth and her publisher, Peepal Tree Press, are bound to feel they struck oil. I’m betting it will be a gusher.