• Madeleine Feeny

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Steeped in millennial angst, this waspishly droll debut explores sexuality, class and language – while enjoying the double-edged rewards of inevitable rooney comparisons.

Photo credit: University Times

The shadow of Sally Rooney hangs over Exciting Times, a whip-smart debut novel whose cover bids frankly for a slice of that Rooney pie. Fellow Dubliner Naoise Dolan has also been featured in the Stinging Fly (the influential Irish literary magazine edited by Rooney in 2018) and even thanks the phenomenon herself in the acknowledgements.

If this sounds cynical, it’s nothing on Dolan’s acerbic twenty-two-year-old narrator Ava – a Rooneyesque creation whose aloof insouciance acts as a smokescreen for rock-bottom self-esteem. Teaching English in Hong Kong after university, Ava meets Julian, an old Etonian banker. A friendship develops, founded on their differences (class, politics, linguistic nuances) and similarities (shared penchants for wine and spiky repartee). He buys her dinners; she moves into his bachelor pad.

'Julian spoke to me the way an aloof person would want to be addressed, which told me I’d convinced him, if not myself, that I was one'

But they aren’t officially a thing, a fact that seems immutably established even among his entitled expat friends. Caught between wanting more and a pathological inability to ask for it, Ava feels her protective mask slipping. Then Julian is called to London, and Ava meets Edith, who throws her life unexpectedly off-balance.

Dolan’s depiction of Ava’s emotional barriers is spot-on. Adrift in an unfamiliar city like many a literary heroine before her (from Elaine Dundy’s in The Dud Avocado to Olivia Sudjic’s in Sympathy), Ava seeks stability in a parasitic relationship that can never be truly equal. A mass of contradictions, she slides between self-knowledge and self-deception, cockiness and insecurity. In her morally inconsistent narrator, Dolan paints a perceptive portrait of a damaging self-esteem deficit that nearly prevents Ava from embracing her sexual identity and pursuing a fulfilling relationship.

With its caustic dialogue, forensic self-analysis and charged sexual politics, Exciting Times wears its millennial heart on its sleeve. A fish out of water among Hong Kong’s Oxbridge-educated elite, Ava is riddled with class anxieties and espouses ‘campus socialism’. She and Edith – a Hong Kong native and Cambridge alumnus – compare colonial grievances.

“I said I didn’t want to play colonial-oppression Olympics. ‘That’s wise,’ she said, ‘because white people generally lose’”

Teaching English, Ava discovers that her Dublin vernacular is deemed incorrect, and shares her students’ frustrations with the foibles of British grammar: “The English taught us English to teach us they were right.” Precision is important. Does anyone get to own language? How can it protect or expose us? In a rare compliment, Julian tells Ava, “you’re careful with language, you strain everything for its meaning, and you’re not easily pleased with how other people put sentences together.” It could be a mission statement for this novel – a taut, perceptive, highly entertaining read where every word earns its place. I only wish my conversations were this witty.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 16th April 2020.

If you read it, tell us what you think at @amoveablefeastlondon.

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