The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger
At first glance this novel may seem like a quirky romance between two unlikely would-be lovers, Azalea and Thomas, who having found each other, get mixed up in Azalea’s quest to analyse what she believes are coincidences that happened to her family, and many father figures.
Underneath this gentle and humorous exterior, however, is a mass of violence. The frustrations of modern life in London give way to child soldiers toting guns in deepest Uganda as all the tragedies in Azalea’s childhood are gradually unravelled.
How Thomas, a university professor who specialises in analysing coincidences, and Azalea, who lectures at a different London college meet, could be construed as a coincidence in itself or is it just serendipitous that they are involved in a pile-up on an escalator in the Underground? Soon after, they meet properly when she comes to him to ask about her own life’s events.
‘I’m getting used to the universe springing surprises.’
‘Would it help if I were to explain why coincidences happen? Why it is that we frail humans have to find patterns in nature?’
‘It might help.’
Azalea was adopted after she was found wandering in a fairground in Devon, aged 3. Her mother had disappeared, she was unable to tell the police where any of the three men who might have been her father were. Azalea is adopted by Luke and Rebecca Folley, and soon taken to Uganda – to a charitable mission and orphanage founded by Luke’s grandfather. There she has an idyllic childhood until the day that Joseph Kony (a very real guerilla leader who led the LRA – the Lord’s Resistance Army – in Uganda, and abducted children to become sex-slaves and child soldiers, and is still at large), came up the mission drive.
‘Are you familiar with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers marching off to war”? asked the soldier of Rebecca.
Rebecca shrank slightly. ‘It’s marching as to war.’
The mission bell began to ring.
‘As to war,’ she said, ‘not off to war. It has a completely different meaning.’
‘It is a command for Christian Soldiers to fight,’ said the man, ‘to go off to war and fight.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Rebecca said. ‘It’s a metaphor. The hymn is telling us that we must face up to evil – but not with violence.’
‘”With the cross of Jesus going on before”,’ said the soldier triumphantly. ‘”Onward into battle, see his banners go.'”
The LRA man’s attention began to turn towards Luke and his urgent ringing of the bell.
Never argue with a man with a gun. However, the conversation buys time for some of the children to escape. Soon, Azalea’s adoptive mother is murdered, her father presumed too, Azalea is captured, but (obviously) escapes.
Back in the present day, Azalea and Thomas slip into a relationship that neither is quite ready to make solid. Azalea is still bound to explore all her coincidences, and Thomas feels beholden to explain them, to explain them away if necessary. This situation reminds me very much of the wonderful and hilarious comedy novel The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (my review here), where a quest for fathers also gets in the way of romance. Ironmonger’s book is no comedy though, despite having moments of gentle humour.
All the threads will finally get resolved, and there is a rather predictable ending – no coincidence there! I enjoyed reading it a lot, but did find Thomas rather wet, and the older Azalea a tad irritating. The sections set in Azalea’s childhood are where it all comes alive – growing up happily at the mission, marred forever by violence.
By necessity perhaps, there is quite a lot of explanation in this novel – my geeky side enjoyed thinking about the statistics of coincidence, but please don’t worry – there are no equations or complex maths, just discussions about coin-flipping, lottery numbers, birthdays etc. Yes, it slows things up a little, but the “course of true love never did run smooth“, as Shakespeare said.
Less necessary to the plot, but making the situation abundantly clear that this corner of Uganda, close to borders with Congo, Kenya and especially Sudan, is a haven for guerilla groups, was a lengthy description of the political situation and the evolution of the different warring factions. Serious as this is, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of the People’s Front of Judea crying ‘Splitters‘ at the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea et al in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when seeing how the factions named themselves.
Mimicking Thomas’s website in the book, you can also visit The Coincidence Authority.com, where you are invited to share your own coincidences. This is, of course, a marketing exercise, but contains some entertaining stories. For anyone interested in the subject, I’d recommend reading Paul Auster’s essays in The Red Notebook (my review here), for some eloquently described examples, and you may be interested in finding out more about influencing luck in Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor, (my review here).
This novel may not be perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)
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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger, pub Sept 2013 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hardback, 277 pages.
The Red Notebook by Paul Auster
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Richard Wiseman