Fate or Chance? – The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger

coincidenceIn fiction, I don’t really like coincidence. It’s often too convenient; a lazy way to move the plot forward. Which is why it’s perhaps surprising that I could find a book predicated on coincidence such a joy. The difference is that the whole point of this book, maybe, is to show how those million to one chances that pepper our lives, the chance encounters that seem impossible, are in reality far more likely than we realise.

Thomas Post is a philosopher. He is interested in the idea that coincidence might be evidence of predetermination. To over-simplify Post’s work (and Ironmonger’s storytelling), reducing coincidence to a set of probabilities could go some way to disproving the existence of God. Then, in walks Azalea Lewis, a girl whose life appears to be predicated on coincidence. Romance inevitably ensues.

What followed was far from expected. I had anticipated a boy meets girl, boy irritates girl by rational approach to chance, boy proved vaguely right, boy saves girl from crushing fear of coincidence, boy marries girl, type story with some interesting psychology, philosophy and jokes thrown in. Well I did get that, but there is considerably more meat in Ironmonger’s pot.

Azalea’s backstory, her life dogged by strife and improbable coincidence is artfully constructed and masterfully told. Where the novel cuts deepest is with its portrayal of Uganda, Azelea’s one-time home.

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The tone of Ironmonger’s omniscient narrator delights throughout. The passage I’ve chosen in the photo, I think best shows the strength of the writing. It’s good when it’s funny, but when serious, he encapsulates the absurdities of life and the desperate disinterest the first world has in Africa. Joseph Kony, a shadowy figure barely heard of in newscasts at home, is the leader of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). This real life super-villain has killed multitudes of Africans and enslaved thousands of children, conscripting them into his army. Many of the novel’s events are precipitated from when Azalea’s missionary parents and the LRA collide. But Azalea’s bad luck did not start there.

From the time she is found as a toddler in a Devon field to the end of the novel. Azalea’s life is a tale of misfortune and unlucky happenstance; Ironmonger constructs it beautifully. It’s one of those books that’s difficult to unpick for review without sullying the magic. I loved if from first page to last. The light writing style is easy to read, yet packs a great emotional punch. There is a perfect balance of light and dark; strange things happen by coincidence but the very worst humanity has to offer is by a combination of design and indifference. It’s a sobering thought.

The Coincidence Authority is what we book lovers constantly crave; a great story, well told. I’ve read some very strong novels in 2013 and this book is in amongst them. Highly recommended.

Many Thanks to Jess at Orion books to consenting to send me a copy of this book to review, from what was little more than a shameless beg… (with, I’ve just realised, the title consistently wrong!) 

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