Australian author Lenny Bartulin started his career with an enjoyably downbeat trilogy of noir crime novels set in Sydney. Those books, starring second hand book dealer Jake Susko delivered an original accidental detective and an original noir vision of Sydney. Bartulin moved on from Susko and into historical fiction with Infamy, a sort of western set in the early days of the penal colony of Van Dieman’s Land. With Fortune Bartulin again tackles historical fiction but expands his scope and his reach dramatically to again deliver something at once seemingly familiar but entirely original.
Fortune opens in 1806 with Napoleon and his victorious army marching into Berlin. In that army and in the crowd are various characters who Bartulin, with his roving authorial eye, will introduce and then follow as their lives spin out in from that point in ways that none of them could have possibly predicted. There is young Johannes Meyer who before the day is out will find himself arrested and later pressed into the army, Claus von Rolt a collector of interesting objects who later becomes obsessed with shrunken heads, Elisabeth von Hoffman who wants to see more of the world and ends up doing just that, a coffee house philosopher called Krüger, and an American chancer Wesley Lewis Jr and his Surinamese companion known as Mr Hendrick who all end up together. All of the characters are buffeted by the tides of history and environment – war, natural disaster, exploration, storm and the law – and move around the globe. They occasionally and briefly cross paths again at unexpected moments, leading the reader to believe that there may be a divine plan (the gods get mentioned from time to time) but maybe actually that life is complete random.
Fortune is engagingly written and always fascinating as Bartulin puts his characters through their paces. The story moves around Europe, the South Pacific, Brazil and for Johannes (by this time John) to Sydney as a convict and later to Bartulin’s old stomping ground of Van Diemen’s Land (aka Tasmania). He does this partly by continuing to follow Napoleon and his fortunes and the wide impact his campaigns have around the world but partly just letting his characters be who they are and observing what happens to them as they follow their dreams, missions or, in some cases, obsessions.
Lenny Bartulin has come a long way from his earlier noir crime books. In Fortune he takes his craft to a new level, delivering a vibrant and entertaining historical novel which works as much like a mosaic as anything else. Stand back and readers might discern some pattern but maybe the gods are, as Bartulin suggests, asleep and the patterns are just what people make to give them comfort when confronted by a capricious and random world.