Review: The Coincidence Authority, John Ironmonger

I picked this one up over a year ago on the behest of a very enthusiastic bookseller in my local branch of Waterstone’s.  I am a very easy mark.  Despite being a signed copy and having a pretty cover and an interesting premise, The Coincidence Authority languished long until by chance I overheard someone on the bus talking about how much they had enjoyed.  For a book all about how the universe may or may not be governed by coincidence, this amused me and so I decided to pick it up.  Of course, had I presented this situation to the titular character Thomas Post, he would have explained how the odds for this were very small – I get the bus every day, I have a tendency to half-hear conversations even when I’m trying to read, it’s not as if they were talking about a book that I actually had read, just one that I happened to own and had not read which also describes a very large number of other titles.  Not such high odds after all.  The novel does have a startlingly original premise however, with one man who has spent his life debunking the idea of coincidence meeting Azalea Lewis, a woman whose life appears to have been defined by it – can their opposing world views be reconciled?  Is one of them right or wrong?

Azalea Lewis was found wandering a fairground as a three year-old on Midsummer’s Day 1982.  She knew her first name and that her last name was ‘Ives’ and that she had a Mummy and Daddy – but nothing else.  Presumed abandoned, her photograph was released to the public as Child A and nobody claimed her. And nobody made the connection between her and the decomposed body of a woman found at the foot of nearby cliffs, a woman cautiously identified as Marion Yves, who had a young daughter named Azaliah.  Adopted by Luke and Rebecca Folley, the abandoned child became Azalea Folley.  Events on Midsummer’s Day 1992 however led to her becoming Azalea Lewis.  The adult Azalea is convinced that she will not survive Midsummer 2012.

john ironmonger
John Ironmonger (c) One Book Lane

As well as having multiple family members meet violent ends on Midsummer Days in third year of every decade, Azalea has encountered a number of other extreme coincidences.  She works in the English literature department of a university and when she went to meet the poet she had been studying for years, he turned out to be a blind man who claimed, with evidence to back it up, that he was in fact her father.  This was the second time in her life that Azalea had met a blind man who believed he was her father.  She is sure that there will be a third.  Even her meeting with Thomas Post, expert in coincidence theory, is itself a coincidence, as they had met some weeks before when they were both involved in a pile-up incident on an escalator on the London Underground.  Thomas had been preoccupied by her ever afterward, but with no means of contacting her had assumed that he would never see her again – until of course she knocked at his office door, armed with her questions on what life means.

Despite the inevitable romantic tension, Thomas is an aloof character – certain in his knowledge that the universe is utterly random, he appears hesitant to take action.  I was reminded of Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y in the way that Thomas spends pages explaining various thought experiments designed to explain the universe.  Azalea is by far the more interesting character and her search for her origins is what gives the novel its heart.  Much is made however of the seagull coincidence which apparently ‘saved’ Azalea’s life – possibly too much. Azalea’s original mother Marion found herself pregnant with three possible candidates as the father – given that this was the 1970s, a time which was still rather unfriendly towards unmarried mothers, Marion decided that there were ‘too many choices’ and so she decided to leave it up to God.  In the company of the appalled vicar, she threw a piece of bread into the grass for each of the options that she felt were before her – abortion, marriage to one of the fathers, a relationship with another, single motherhood etc – and waited for the seagull to decide the fate of the unborn child.  This felt like a very male way of looking at the situation – as a woman and as the daughter of a woman who found herself unmarried and pregnant (albeit with only one candidate to be the father) thirty years ago, I don’t believe that Marion truly let the seagulls (or indeed God) decide.  She knew what she wanted but it just takes a bit of courage to embrace the decision.  In the way he described the situation, Ironmonger seemed no better than the aghast villagers who spread the story as evidence of Marion’s callous nature.  There are certain editions of the novel that even feature a seagull on the cover.  I do not see this incident as being any kind of coincidence.

coincidence authorityIn some ways, I think that Ironmonger became rather weighted down by his own ideas.  The Folleys move out to Uganda to live in a mission when Azalea is very small and Ironmonger reels off vast reams of facts about the internal politics of that country along with the plethora of acronyms for the different rebel forces.  For a novel set in Uganda during the 80s and 90s, it is inevitable that Joseph Kony and his child soldiers should cross the novel’s path.  This could have felt opportunistic in terms of narrative had the full force of Ironmonger’s rage not given his work such impact.  A mercenary notes how deadly the child soldiers are because they ‘don’t know when to shoot, they just let it rip’ and when one of these infant warriors does shoot, Ironmonger notes that as well as his freedom-fighter bandana, he is wearing a Dennis the Menace t-shirt.  The fates of Kony’s victims are horrendous – and utterly ignored by the international media.  There is such disgust in Ironmongers words, ‘As we wept for a dead princess in London, as we hunted for weapons in Iraq, as we queued for our touchscreen mobile phones, children were lining up to have their hands hacked off.’  As Ironmonger notes in his afterword, Kony remains only the sixth most-wanted man in the world.  You really have to wonder who there is out there worse than him.

Still, it would be wrong to think of this as a depressing novel – there are many other moments that make it truly lovely.  The vicar who baptised the infant Azaliah (her mother had wanted to call her Hazel, but the vicar preferred the more Biblical moniker) had dropped her on the font, leaving her with a scar on her nose.  Thirty-odd years later, he apologises to the adult Azalea, still making embarrassed excuses that her christening gown was ‘very glossy’ and that he had lost his grip.  Azaliah had had three godfathers, each of the candidates for her paternity, and the vicar enquires whether Azalea ever found out which one was her true father.  Emotionally, Azalea tells him that Luke Folley was her true father, that he had loved her and raised her and that he gave his life for her.  There was something so very beautiful about the respectful way that the vicar replied, “Well then he truly was your father.”  There is so much more to the role than blood.

The Coincidence Authority did make me think – during my own life, I have had a habit of running into people I know in the strangest places, so much so that I now barely react to the occurrence, taking it in my stride while the other person looks shocked.  It was interesting to hear Thomas Post explain the mathematics that this is not that strange.  I had kind of suspected this myself.  When I moved to Oxford, I almost immediately ran into an old acquaintance from university and this did not seem strange at all – he had always dressed solely in tweed and smoked a pipe from his first year onwards and preferred a typewriter over a computer.  Where else would he ever find a haven other than Oxford?  Other coincidences can seem stranger – such as the discovery a few years ago that my mother’s obstetrician (the doctor who delivered me) has a holiday home next to where my biological father lives.  The crossing of paths between the man who brought me into the world and the man who represents fifty percent of my genetic material still seems a little odd to me – still stranger was my father’s revelation that the obstetrician’s daughter was my brother’s teacher for a while.  On the whole though, I tend to feel that the universe is a mysterious place and that attempting to find a unified theory – whether it be the Billiard Theory, Schroedinger’s Cat – whatever – is essentially doomed to failure and you may as well just get on with your life.

As a romantic comedy, The Coincidence Authority was underwhelming – its romantic lead dithered far too much – but as a mystery, it was elegantly plotted, concluding with no clear answers about the forces that keep the globe turning.  Azalea was an intriguing heroine, doggedly plodding on against the odds that she felt were stacked against her, and also there was something inspiring about the way in which she was willing to embrace the mystery in her own life.  Azalea did not remember her life as Azaliah Yves, so there was something incredibly tragic about hearing the adult woman recall the song that Marion once sang to her toddler self, of the feeling of warmth she felt when re-visiting her second possible father’s home, even though she had no memories of her previous stays there.  It is not easy to deal with the unclear and the unspoken – many of us have these shadows within our personal history but Azalea’s courage in processing and overcoming them was inspiring.  The Coincidence Authority was a passionate and intelligent novel with a story that despite its improbability still managed to remain well in the realms of plausibility. Well worth the reading.

 

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The Coincidence Authority by John Ironmonger
Published by Hachette UK on September 12th 2013
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
Pages: 304
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780297866145


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One thought on “Review: The Coincidence Authority, John Ironmonger

  1. Now, when this review popped up this morning in my usual browsing of your blog I was immediately reminded of a book I read years ago on this very subject. Trouble was I couldn’t remember who it was by.

    A couple of hours later and I browse your blog again and the name flashes in to my mind – Brian Inglis, how or why I don’t know. The book entitled ‘Coincidence: A Matter of Chance – Or Synchronicity?’ was published in 1990, and I read it whilst doing my philosophy degree as a mature student (it wasn’t required reading, it just got mentioned as Inglis draws upon Jung, so I bought a copy.) Just as curiously whilst I’m reading about it on Amazon I think about my copy is among the 2,000 books I ‘lost’ when I divorced, except it occurs to me it could be in the loft in a box of philosophy books I did keep at the time (I’ll check next time I go up there.)

    As it is so long since I read Inglis’s book I can’t remember his conclusion, though I do remember his examples are very convincing taken at face value.

    In your penultimate paragraph you discuss various things in your own life that could be classed as coincidences, there are ones in mine that would seem to be but I’m not sure whether they are. Do we notice events that seem like it because they stand out, even though they are only one of thousands that happen to us during our lives?

    A writer in a work of fiction can create as many of these events as they like to add to the plot, the trick is to make them convincing. It seems from your review that this one succeeds.

    Yet another for the TBR pile!

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