Caribbean fiction has a distinguished lineage, from VS Naipaul to Monique Roffey, but its roots often seem to lie in The Tempest. The presence of a dangerous magic lurks beneath its prodigious natural beauty, and Amanda Smyth’s third novel Fortune has it erupting from the earth of Trinidad itself: oil.
Eddie has returned to 1920s Trinidad from the US oilfields, and sets himself to persuade an illiterate Indian landowner, Chatterjee, to let him drill on his failing cocoa plantation, which is “floating on oil”. What Eddie needs to gain preferment over an offer from a powerful American oil company is an investor. A chance encounter with Tito Fernandez, a successful local businessman, swings the deal. Charismatic, handsome Eddie and educated, middle-aged Tito become friends as well as business partners. “Find a woman with fire in her,” Tito advises, trusting Eddie with his money, his life and, unwittingly, his beautiful young wife, Ada.
Most of the action follows the two men, as they toil in suffocating heat to realise their dreams of wealth. Each is sympathetic, yet fatally flawed. Smyth, like Jean Rhys before her, excels at interweaving place and character. Her prose is studded with sinister metaphors, from the white sun “puncturing” the sky to the torrents of excrement and mud that come with rain and deforestation. Watchful eyes are everywhere on the island, “jumping like fleas”, black as seeds and ultimately hard as stones; the protagonists’ crimes of murder and adultery do not at first seem to be noted by others.
Eddie patches together rackety machinery from other abandoned attempts to extract Trinidad’s abundant supply of oil, and fails to provide workers with hard hats. His confidence in a car-filled future makes him seem like a man of the world, but his consuming desire for Ada, and hers for him, renders the lovers careless. We know that other oil rigs have led to fire and death, and each time a “black fountain” erupts, the narrative tension mounts. But the disaster that eventually strikes has as much to do with human frailty as the pressure in the earth. Based on a real-life tragedy, Fortune is a magnificently absorbing tale of passion, greed and the misplaced energies that cause environmental as well as personal ruin.