Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is the story of Ava a 22 year old Irish expat working in a badly paid job as an English teacher for young children in Hong Kong where she meets Julian, a 28 year old Banker from London, they quickly move in together where a murky relationship ensues. While Julian is out of town for work Ava meets Edith, a lawyer and a Hong Kong local. This book takes us into the mind of Ava as she narrates the myriad emotions about navigating these two relationships in this hotly anticipated debut novel.
Ava herself is a very complex character that is in a constant battle with showcasing herself as detached while keeping inner vulnerabilities at bay to the point of self-destruction. We really get into the core of these vulnerabilities through draft texts that Ava writes and deletes, telling us what she wants to say but can’t quite reveal to both Julian and Edith. In an exploration of the multi facetted nature of modern life opposing conflicts are consistent throughout, for example Ava claims to be a socialist while very much benefitting and enjoying the money coming from Julian’s incredibly capitalist job.
Ava’s indecisive tendencies consume her relationships with both Julian and Edith as they both run parallel and Ava weaves between the two offering constant analysis. All of the characters are described with startling awareness and although we aren’t in the minds of Edith and Julian these characters are just as fraught and complex. With Julian its hard to know if he actually doesn’t care or if he is just giving Ava what he believes she wants, and with Edith Ava is able to explore her sexuality and be with someone who deeply cares for her but runs the risk of exposing her vulnerabilities.
The depth and layers of each of the three central characters created means that they all have relatable points but not necessarily likeable ones. This isn’t a book to jump into expecting to like all the characters, something Dolan herself decided wasn’t necessary for the story and I couldn’t agree more, it allows a more critical eye to question the characters actions without being caught up in an emotional bias. Dolan was diagnosed with autism around the same time she completed the novel, which is something that has heavily influenced her writing and storyline through her desire to find stories she can find relatable, as so often not presenting as ‘likeable’ due to her autistic traits.
This novel has been compared to Sally Rooney in basically every review, however Exciting Times felt incredibly unique to me and definitely stands alone in its brilliance. But if what you enjoy about Rooney’s writing is the play on power dynamics, the sharp pointed writing style and intellectual conversations between characters then this is definitely your next read. Also like Rooney this book has been picked up for TV and Dolan will be directing.
This review has taken me a while to write because so much of this novel is undefined, for a story that discusses so many weighty topics such as gender roles, sexuality, class, and capitalism, it never tells you how to feel which leaves you still thinking about the story long after you’ve put it down. This is a novel I look forward to reading again as so much of the story is in Ava’s thoughts and the conversations between characters and not in the actual plot that coming back to this story with fresh analysis means this could easily feel like a whole new book.