Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Published by W&N

Love affairs are complicated things, and often even more treacherous when wading through the waters of youth, class and confusion. Ava is an Irish English as a Foreign Language teacher in Hong Kong, who doesn’t quite know why she’s there, how long she’ll stay or have company other than the other international teachers or expat bankers with excess money and insufficient charm. She has fled Dublin post graduating to the unsure shores of East Asia with no real plan in mind other than to make some money and exist in another world for as long as it takes to figure out what to do next.

She meets Julian, a London banker nearing thirty who she develops an unusual rapport with, and soon moves out of her over-crowded, under-utilised flat into his. Their relationship is fraught and doesn’t have a label as such; they enjoy each other’s company in a weird, mutually self-sabotaging way but provide no real comfort to each other, or improve themselves by being in their company in any way.

When Julian takes off on a months long work trip to London, Ava finds herself striking up a friendship, then crush and ultimately relationship with Hong Kong trainee solicitor Edith. Theirs is a well-matched, exciting and loving relationship, but quandaries over who they can let in on it, and when, cast a shadow. Neither Julian nor Edith are privy to the existence of the other (insofar as Edith believes Julian is solely a flatmate, albeit a benevolent one), but Ava continuously pushes those matters to address aside in order to maintain the status quo in both relationships.

While Edith certainly expands Ava’s horizons, it’s not all stagnant repression with Julian; although he doesn’t go so far as to defend her honour from atrociously snobbish friends, who comment on her accent and education (Dublin, Trinity) her somehow amusing lowly status as a TEFL teacher and make remarks the likes of “I bet she grew up in a small house”, he doesn’t encourage their banter either. His aloofness comes from the stiff upper lip drilled into him by the society he grew up in, which is amusingly and astutely reflected on and lampooned by Ava (via the author, who unlike her heroine attended Oxford and bore witness to the uneven class divide that still exists there).

Naoise Dolan has constructed a remarkable novel of insightful wit and detached clarity. I hesitate to use the word astounding, although I reached for it, because it’s a quiet, measured read, not big or bombastic. Its story is also quite simple, at least on the surface; that of the experiences of an intelligent, slightly barbed young woman who can be at once over-emotional and also at odds with her feelings. She’s a fascinating character, incredibly contemplative and self-aware but with the sense that she’s somewhat removed from wherever she is and whomever she’s with. That lends itself to laser-pointed observations towards class and wealth, gender and sexuality and even the function of language in different countries and social settings.

Dolan has been compared with Sally Rooney, because all emerging Irish female authors will have no choice but to be for the next decade or so. The thing is, there’s little to compare with the writer of Normal People, except that they are both Irish female writers who studied at Trinity and have written astute, deceptively sparse novels loosely based around their own experiences. So have many other writers of different generations, gender, nationalities and alma maters, but who’s counting them? One of the things that is very different from Rooney’s output is that this is more introspective, even proficient in its structure and development, and perhaps also its controlled use of language than its comparison.

Exciting Times is an extremely droll, observant novel that’s frequently thought-provoking and often addresses uncomfortable issues and situations head on and unashamed. Irish readers will squirm at the British class snobbery applied to us covertly and under their breath, as will, I imagine, those in Hong King and other former colonies that have yet to fully emerge from the vestiges of British rule. Those interested in linguistics will also get a kick out of Ava’s teaching moments with her young students (as will former and current English grammar TEFL teachers who tend to learn as they go). An extremely accomplished debut, Dolan is without a doubt one to watch.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 10th June, 2020.

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