Coincidence in Fiction

At the moment I’m reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne; I’m just over halfway through it. Early on I was struck by a coincidence. The narrator, Cyril Avery, ends up sharing a room at a boarding school with Julian, a boy whom he had last seen when he was seven years of age seven years before. How likely is that?

I read on and encountered another coincidence more striking than the first. Having relocated as an adult to Amsterdam, Cyril has taken to visiting a pub run by a certain Jack Smoot. Jack’s life had been saved by Cyril’s biological mother when he and his lover, Sean, were attacked in Dublin by Sean’s father in a drunken, homophobic rage. Despite being heavily pregnant with Cyril at the time, his mother had tried valiantly to save them. Sean died of his injuries but Smoot, though badly injured, survived.

As coincidences go, this one is major. It also incorporates dramatic irony, since the reader is aware of how major this coincidence is, but Cyril is not. Cyril has yet to meet his mother and has no idea who she is.

I am uneasy about this, but the author could always reply, Coincidences occur in life, as they do, or Look here, Rod, it may be highly unlikely but it’s possible. Which, of course, it is. Does it work? I feel manipulated by it, but others may not. To misquote Wallace Stevens, I am of two minds, like a tree in which there are two blackbirds.

Does anyone out there have a view on this?

2 thoughts on “Coincidence in Fiction

  1. The coincidences are maybe a flaw, but I don’t know how the narrative could have gone forward without them. I loved the dramatic irony regarding Cyril’s bio mom. It creates suspense or tension or frustration, maybe. I loved the story so much that the coincidences were fine with me.
    Reminded me of Dickens. The coincidences in his books are sometimes ridiculous, but the stories are so compelling that I never cared. I thought they were kind of funny and okay in fiction. And yes, coincidences that change lives happen in reality too. I know I’ve experienced a few, but I can’t seem to root them out to specific level at the moment.

    (Comment by K which kept vanishing as she tried to post it.)

  2. Interesting Rod. I do an author talk ~ coincidences in the life of an author ~ me! Some of them are pretty unbelievable but true. I can understand how you felt though.

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