As readers, we’re always looking for dynamic new iterations and interpretations of our favourite authors and genres. We know what we like, and we want the same, but different; enough so it feels fresh, but not to the extent it feels totally unfamiliar. Which is how I feel about Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times. The twenty-something Irish author was christened “the new Sally Rooney” long before I plucked her debut novel from my stack. Which was inevitable, given her biography, and the territory trodden in her book: 22-year-old narrator Ava has relocated from Dublin to Hong Kong to teach English, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle with a man and woman, and floundering to find meaning, and indeed any semblance of sincerity, in the burgeoning years of her adulthood.
We are entrenched in Ava’s headspace for the duration of the novel, which is often exasperating, if only because Dolan pitch-perfectly captures the prevailing nihilism seeped into the psyches of most young adults. It sure was in mine. At various occasions throughout its slight page count, Ava is portrayed as manipulative, self-loathing, and cynical. I’m not sure I ever liked her, but I sure as heck sympathised with her plight to find purpose, and chuckled along at her acerbic observations about class, race, gender, wealth and relationships, and basically every element of society at a microscopic level.
Oh, there were so many moments I wanted to shake the book and bellow, “Why are you like this, Ava? Why are you even with Julian; can’t you see what he is? What’s with the chip on your shoulder? Oh, not again; this is a blatant example of self-sabotage!” Because at its heart, Exciting Times is a love story, in the purest sense, because it doesn’t just present the glitz and glamour and tenderness of romance; it shoves the reader’s face in the mud and muck of opening up your heart, and the high-risk reality of tethering your happiness to another. Ava is battle-hardened; emotionally unavailable, until the moment she isn’t, which sneaks up on her — and the reader — with such poignant clarity in a moment of beautifully inadvertent intimacy.
Ava is a real person; frustratingly so, and sometimes — for me — loathsomely so. Which is the genius of the novel. Through sketched-out anecdotes of her year in Hong Kong, Dolan exposes us to Ava’s real, unvarnished thoughts and fears. True and honest insight into the mind of a young woman finding herself in a messy world. Paint my introspections on the page, and I’m sure the result would be ugly, too. Garnished with Ava / Dolan’s specific brand of caustic wit, Exciting Times is elevated beyond mere Sally Rooney cookie-cutter. It’s a millennial parable.
Number Of Pages: 240
Published: 14th April 2020
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co