#BookReview Fortune by Amanda Smyth

FortuneAbout the Book

1920s Trinidad. Eddie Wade’s truck breaks down and he’s offered a ride by businessman, Tito Fernandez. So begins Fortune, a novel based on a real-life event about love, money, greed and ambition.

Eddie has spent the last years in the oilfields of the US and now he has returned home and is looking to sink his own well and make his fortune. He knows how dangerous it can be, but he feels lucky and Trinidad is rich in oil. Over the last months, like other oilmen, he has been wooing Sonny Chatterjee, a difficult man whose failing cocoa estate, Kushi, in South Trinidad, is so full of oil you can put a stick in the ground and see it bubble up. The morning before Eddie meets Tito, Sonny has finally given him the go-ahead to see what he can do. Unlike the big corporations drilling nearby, in his gut, Sonny trusts Eddie. Now all he needs is someone foolhardy enough to invest.

The fortuitous meeting between Eddie and Tito, leads to a business deal and a friendship that will make and break them both. Tito invests in Eddie’s confidence and although they are hindered by mosquitoes, heat, terrific rains, and superstitious fears, they find their fortune shooting out of the ground in thousands of barrels of oil, not once but three times. But their partnership also brings Eddie into contact with Ada, Tito’s beautiful wife, and as much as they try, they cannot avoid the attraction they feel for each other. With everything in the balance and everything to lose Tito and Eddie decide to go for one more well before Sonny sells the estate. How can this end well?

Format: Paperback (266 pages)   Publisher: Peepal Tree
Publication date: 15th July 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Fortune is one of the four books on the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022.

Fortune, in the many senses of the word, is a recurring theme of the book. The most obvious is the chance meeting between Eddie and Tito that opens the book.  It brings about a partnership that offers the possibility for both of them to make a fortune through exploiting the oil reserves to be found beneath the soil of Trinidad.  For Tito, it offers the opportunity to address his precarious financial situation, one which he has kept hidden from his wife, Ada, and wider society who see only a cigar-smoking, luxury loving man of the world.  For Eddie, an instinctive risk-taker, it appeals to his ambitious nature. ‘In Trinidad you can be the first, a pioneer.’

The cocoa trees on Sonny Chatterjee’s estate are dying and though he is reluctant to allow drilling for oil on his land – he has repeatedly resisted offers from a large oil corporation – he wonders if perhaps this is the opportunity he has been waiting for. ‘What if, through meeting Eddie, his luck had changed?… What if he could show her [his wife, Sita] is was her good fortune to be married to him?’

Tito is keen to include Eddie in his social circle which eventually leads to Eddie being introduced to Tito’s  family. You sense the immediate attraction between Ada, disillusioned with her relationship with Tito and her life in general, and Eddie, starstruck by the beautiful, bewitching Ada. For Eddie, Ada is ‘a woman who could make people stop what they are doing to look at her’.  Eddie, with his energy and film star looks, is like no-one Ada’s  ever met before. ‘It seemed to Ada he could have fallen out of the sky.’

However, there’s also a sense of foreboding as their relationship seems reckless on both their parts: Ada, because it threatens her marriage, and Eddie, because it threatens his lucrative business partnership with Tito. I felt there was a real The Great Gatsby vibe to the triangular relationship.  Drawn together by a seemingly irresistible force, the risk of discovery is a game of chance that Ada in particular seems willing to play.  The author injects a real sense of eroticism into the descriptions of their sexual encounters. ‘He searched her body like a thief, looking for something.’

Of course, drilling for oil is a risky venture – a game of chance – and not without its dangers as is demonstrated when a small act, provoked by an act of betrayal, has unintended consequences. ‘The little things you do sometimes change your destiny.’

Based on real events, Fortune is a fascinating glimpse into an aspect of Trinidad’s history that was completely new to me. It’s a skilfully crafted story that explores how strong emotions – passion, despair, ambition – can make people risk everything.

In three words: Eloquent, compelling, immersive

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Amanda SmythAbout the Author

Amanda Smyth is Irish-Trinidadian. Born in Ireland, she is the author of Black Rock (2009) and A Kind of Eden (2013).  Black Rock won the Prix du Premier Roman prize, was shortlisted for the McKitterick Prize and selected as an Oprah Winfrey Summer Read. Amanda teaches creative writing at Arvon, Skyros in Greece, and at Coventry University. She lives in Leamington Spa with her husband and daughter. (Photo/bio: Publisher author page)

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#BookReview The Sunken Road by Ciarán McMenamin @VintageBooks

The Sunken Road PBAbout the Book

Annie, Francie and Archie were inseparable growing up, but in 1914 the boys are seduced by the drama of the Great War. Before leaving their small Irish village for the trenches, Francie promises his true love Annie that he will bring her little brother home safe.

Six years later Francie is on the run, a wanted man in the Irish war of Independence. He needs Annie’s help to escape safely across the border, but that means confronting the truth about why Archie never came back….

Format: Paperback (272 pages )          Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 17th February 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The story unfolds in alternating chapters moving between the trenches of France in 1915/16 and Ireland in 1922 during the Irish War of Independence. I’ll admit the latter is not something I knew much about prior to reading this book. What I learned can perhaps be summed up by one character’s observation, ‘The North, the South, the British, the Specials, the Free State Army, the IRA. It’s a right fuckin’ mess up here’.

The author has an actor’s ear for dialogue and the rhythm of Irish speech. The book’s vivid, punchy language accentuates the black humour of Frankie and his comrades. Apart from drink, it’s their only shield against the memories of the terrible scenes they have witnessed and the senseless loss of life. The madness of war is exemplified by a trench raid which is hailed a success despite it yielding no results apart from the death of a highly regarded officer, awarded a posthumous DSO. ‘For conspicuous gallantry, in action… There is nothing conspicuous about him now. Apart from his fucking absence.’

The Sunken Road is not a book for the faint-hearted as it includes harrowing scenes depicting the realities of trench warfare in France and Belgium during the First World War. ‘There is a uniformity to men’s voices when they choke on their own blood while begging for their mother’s tit. A million shells from thousands of guns for hundred of hours.’ It is during his time serving with the British army that Frankie first encounters the man who will become his nemesis – a man who is a bully, a coward and a hypocrite.

It is only in the final chapters of the book that Annie – and the reader – discover the tragic circumstances surrounding Archie’s failure to return from the war. The author resists the temptation to end the book on an uplifting note (echoes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) although you could say that a kind of justice is served.

I thought the writing was superb and the characters of Frankie, Archie and Annie beautifully realized. There’s Archie, the gentle dreamer who believes it is his ‘destiny’ to liberate Europe, Frankie, the loyal friend tormented by guilt, and Annie, the feisty young woman torn between love and an unwillingness to forgive.  Although not an easy read, I found the book incredibly moving, immersive and utterly gripping.

The Sunken Road is the fifth book I’ve read from the thirteen books on the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022 and it’s definitely up there with my favourite book so far, The Fortune Men.

In three words: Powerful, dark, gripping

Try something similar: Where God Does Not Walk by Luke McCallin

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Ciaran McMenaminAbout the Author

Ciaran McMenamin was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in 1975. A graduate of the RSAMD, he has worked extensively for the past twenty years as an actor in film, television and theatre. His acclaimed first novel, Skintown, was a WHSmith Fresh Talent pick.

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