This is one of those book choices that I could easily classify under ‘Instagram made me do it’. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan has been popping up on my feed left, right and centre so I had to get it. It was meant to be, right? I don’t very often order hardback books either which is a testament to my impatience.
When a book gets a lot of hype, I’m always a bit nervous to read it. It seems like an awful lot of pressure on one book. I had no reason to fear though because boy, is this good. I gobbled it up in a day or two, and if I’d had the time I’d have done it in one sitting.
Exciting Times is about Ava who moved from Dublin to Hong Kong to teach rich kids English for rubbish pay. Julian, her banker friend from London, earns a lot of money and is happy spending it on Ava. Their relationship mainly consists of them having sex and guarded conversations whilst living together in an apartment he pays for. When Julian is working away, Ava meets Edith, a polished lawyer who grew up in Hong Kong (apart from boarding school and Cambridge, of course). Edith is interesting and, crucially, interested in what Ava has to say. Edith and Ava start to spend more time together until Julian tells Edith he’s coming back to Hong Kong. Now Ava is forced to tell the truth, to herself and others, about what they both mean to her and what she will do next.
For a relatively short book, Exciting Times covers a lot of topics. Dolan deftly covers love, sexuality, money, politics, and more. She explores the ideals we place on modern relationships in a way that is unlike anything I’ve read before. I mean this both in the way that she writes about the role technology plays in relationships (purposely watching or not watching Instagram stories and scrolling deep into the Facebook archives), and the normative expectations of what makes a relationship valid.
I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable, yet I still wanted to read more about them. Dolan has made sure that they are interesting and, through their flaws and the messiness, strangely relatable too. Ava’s inner monologue betrays self-doubt and shines a light on the mind games we play, sometimes only with ourselves, to gain the upper hand. Ava knows that Julian is cool and detached, but even when she’s falling in love with Edith she can’t help but text him to say that she misses him. Ava is also whip-smart (even if she won’t admit it) but she’s not a reliable narrator. You can never really trust that she’s not shaping the narrative to her own opinions, rather than the truth.
The prose is sparse, acerbic, and really, really smart. The observations made me laugh and also feel quite stupid at times, particularly those about the English language and dialect. But I like that in a book. I like it when an author pushes me and makes me stop to reread a sentence a couple of times. It’s a key theme in the book, where language and education is a valuable currency. As Dolan says, “People who’d gone to Oxford would tell you so even when it wasn’t the question.” As an Oxford alumnus herself, Dolan’s commentary on classism and privilege in education is biting.
Exciting Times is an extraordinary debut novel. It’s thought-provoking and its rawness exposes our vulnerabilities as humans beautifully. I already can’t wait to see what Naoise Dolan will do next.
Get your hands on a copy of the book here.