Fortune by Amanda Smyth

My first book for this year’s 20 Books of Summer is also one of the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The winner is going to be revealed at the Borders Book Festival on Friday 17th June, so I wanted to read this one before the announcement. It’s the second of the four titles on the shortlist that I’ve read – the other is the excellent Rose Nicolson; I am currently halfway through the third, The Magician, but am not sure if I’ll finish it in time, and I won’t get to the fourth one, News of the Dead, now either.

Anyway, Fortune is set in Trinidad in the 1920s and begins with a chance meeting between two men. One of them, Eddie Wade, has spent the last few years working in the US oilfields and has recently returned home, hoping to make his fortune on the island. He’s convinced that the land beneath Sonny Chatterjee’s cocoa plantation is rich in oil and is on the verge of persuading Sonny to let him start drilling when his truck breaks down on the road. Businessman Tito Fernandez stops to help and when he hears about Eddie’s project, he agrees to invest.

Soon Eddie and Tito are the best of friends and their trust in each other pays off when the oil begins to flow. However, as Eddie spends more and more time visiting the Fernandez family and becoming part of their social circle, he finds himself increasingly drawn to Tito’s beautiful wife, Ada – and the attraction is mutual.

The novel is inspired by a real event which took place in Trinidad in 1928, but I would recommend not looking it up before reading the book. Although I did eventually guess what was going to happen, I’m glad I didn’t know for certain as it would have taken away some of the impact of the story. The characters also seem to be loosely based on real people, but with different names and obviously with fictitious storylines created around the historical facts.

I can’t think of any other books I’ve read set in Trinidad and I’m ashamed to admit that it’s a place I know very little about, but Amanda Smyth, who is an Irish-Trinidadian author, brings it to life beautifully – the landscape, the plants and wildlife, the bustling streets of Port of Spain, and the cultures, beliefs and traditions of the Trinidadian people. At the time of our story, the island is going through a period of change; the cocoa trees that had formed such an important part of the economy are dying and new sources of income are needed. With the growing popularity of cars and planes, Trinidad’s oil boom comes at just the right time. Smyth does a wonderful job of portraying the ambition and greed of the various oil prospectors, the reluctance of Sonny Chatterjee to give up on his cocoa farming and allow drilling on his land, the fears of his wife Sita, who is mistrustful and suspicious of the whole business, and the excitement the characters feel when the first well is struck.

The tensions between the characters are also very well done; the relationship between Eddie and Ada develops slowly but once their affair begins they take so many risks it seems inevitable that Tito will find out and you wonder what will happen when he does. The personal stories of the characters play out against the backdrop of the oil rush, with all the different elements of the novel falling into place to build towards a dramatic conclusion. Although I still prefer Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, this is an impressive novel too and while it hadn’t sounded very appealing to me at first, I can see now why the Walter Scott Prize judges decided to shortlist it.

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 26/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.