Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Strange coincidences in fiction and real life

I hate books where there are unexplained coincidences. Films, too, where the hero just manages to turn up at the one moment the heroine needs him or whatever. But, in real life, coincidence plays a major part of our lives. One very strange one is the peculiar case of my uncle Bob. I grew up not knowing that my father had a first cousin. This isn't surprising, because Dad didn't know about his existence either. In fact, he didn't know his own father had another sibling. So, while I was wrestling with our family tree, my daughter and I were researching and stretching our understanding of living in the past. It is like an alien planet, the past, it's much harder to get your head around what life was like, or what people's perspective was like. I put an early draft up on the Internet, on ancestry.com, and a year later, got a baffled email from someone who had found parallels between his family tree and mine. His great-great grandfather and my great-great-grandfather appeared to have the same name. Some of the family names appeared the same, especially the distinctive 'Lucius Carey Nolan'. But he had never heard of my grandfather, or my dad. To cut a long story into usable bites, we met up at my house, and we were completely blown away. He is a short, jolly version of my dad. Mannerisms, nerdy passions, enthusiasms, features, phrases, even the way he says my name. My dad had a passion for Caenozoic shark teeth from a particular strata. Uncle Bob is an expert on Victorian salt-water aquaria and is an expert on rock pools. He phoned this evening, I thought it was my dad. He's coming to see us tomorrow.

Now, I love my dad. Uncle Bob is enthusiastically jolly - in fact, he's a bit bubbly. But I can't believe how alike two people are who never met, didn't even know about each other's existence. Their childhoods had a similar pattern, in many ways, they have taken similar paths. I wonder how plausible such a coincidence would be if I wrote it in a short story.

I met my closest friend on a day I had heard some terrible news. Her dog ate my toddler's ice cream and I told her, a stranger, my problems while she apologised. I met my partner in spooky circumstances - when people ask, '...but when did you know' I know I can't tell them the truth. (It was the morgue but who would believe that?) Maybe coincidences do work: maybe if they work in real life I can somehow make the meeting of two characters in a story magical and coincidental. Or at least not break the illusion like some books do. You're just starting to understand the characters, beginning to predict what they might think or do, then something happens at the very moment that the most drama can be squeezed out and you sit back and think 'Oh, yes, that would really happen.' Sarcastically. The spell is broken.

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