Review of Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

I recently picked up Exciting Times because I wanted a break from the plethora of novels I have waiting on my bookshelves, most of which touch on some aspect of racial trauma/black pain. Enter Exciting Times. This is a book that I had seen on a lot of “books to watch out for” lists last year, which is what originally piqued my interest in it. If I am completely honest, the biggest thing that drew me to this book was the incredibly colourful cover – a shallow but honest fact.

I absolutely loved this book. One of the things I loved most about it was the astute observations of vapid and affluent public and private school people, how they move through the world in their often self-obsessed and ignorant ways, and the contradictions between the privileged lives they lead and the ways in which they describe themselves (which is often, though not always, in a decidedly less-privileged way – a common thing to see if you have observed middle-class people as a relative outsider, but something that middle class people either refuse to see in themselves, or are woefully and wilfully ignorant of). I found the juxtaposition of Ava, the seemingly working-class raised “Marxist” protagonist against her two love interests – emotionally obtuse, Oxford-educated banker Julian, and matter of fact, astute and incredibly well put together Edith very interesting to observe as a reader.

Ava seems to operate as a sort of socialist-leaning outsider who reads the actions and thoughts of her fellow expat work colleagues, and friends of her well-to-do love interests (mainly Julian’s I should add), for filth. She makes some deft observations about people and life that I found incredibly honest and refreshing to read in a fiction novel. She notes that Julian and his ilk often are unhappy because they have no real purpose in life and therefore just pursue money and other worldly objects. The lesson here is that capitalism and the pursuit of capitalist ideals will always invariably make you unhappy.

I also appreciate the arc that Ava has throughout the book. In the beginning she reads as an ambling 22-year-old who seems to relish avoiding creating meaningful relationships – whether that is friendships with her flatmates and work colleagues, or a deep and meaningful romantic relationship. She distances herself from people, which is why we think she takes a particular liking to emotionally unavailable Julian – a man that she frequently stresses over in the first third of the book. She is never sure whether she truly likes him, and often thinks that he doesn’t like her. As she fixates on the latter, we begin to see their relationship as something that can never truly be more than a transactional and physical one. This anxiety that Ava seems to grapple with when it comes to relationships is where I first understood the comparisons being made with Normal People by Sally Rooney. However, I fear that such a comparison is a little simplistic and doesn’t fully consider how brilliant Exciting Times is as its own unique story.

It is also worth saying that Ava appears as an unlikeable protagonist in the beginning, but slowly she reveals more information about the inner workings of her mind and how multi-faceted, and sometimes hypocritical, she is. She seems to be ostensibly very anti-capitalist but is also happy for Julian to buy her lavish gifts that mean nothing to him and his banking salary. She often thinks about money, especially when thinking about her rent and the privileged upbringings of her love interests but she doesn’t seem to be as beholden to the pursuit of it as Julian. I get the feeling that she just wants a life where she doesn’t have to panic about her salary.

As we move through the book, we eventually discover that Ava has a hard time forming any sorts of relationships – whether these are friendships or romantic relationships – because she was bullied at school after being accused of being a lesbian by the same girls who would later call themselves LGBTQI+ allies. This part of the book enables the reader to empathise with Ava as we read about how heart-breaking and frustrating it is to see the people who made fun of you for simply being who you were suddenly pretending to be champions of equity, diversity, and inclusion several years later. This is the kind of virtue signally that truly grinds my gears. But I digress.

While reading Exciting Times I noticed that there were some very astute observations about race. One of my favourite sections of the book is when Edith, who is of Singaporean and Chinese heritage, tells Ava that if she tries to incite a sort of “oppression Olympics” when she talks about how oppressed the Irish were by the English, she will never win against her. Hearing Dolan speak on the Vintage Books podcast about how James Baldwin was a huge influence for her helped me look back on her observations on race and white privilege in Exciting Times as very Baldwin-esque. It’s not often that white writers make any meaningful or accurate comments about race in their fiction. I feel Dolan’s love of Baldwin has seeped through her writing and enabled her to overcome this very common hurdle.

It was clear that an exploration of what it might be like to be a financially precarious, bisexual Irish millennial woman living as an “expat” in Hong Kong were central themes of Exciting Times while reading it. Although Dolan’s prose was often littered with many advanced (for me anyway) polysyllabic words that I had to regularly stop reading to look up the meaning of on, Exciting Times was in the main a very well-written, witty, and absorbing novel that had me hooked up until the last scene. That Dolan was able to so vividly describe the interior voice of Ava so that I, as the reader, was engrossed in her anxiety around relationships, her identity and her low self-esteem throughout the novel is a testament to how gifted a writer she is. I can’t wait to read her future work.

Rating: 4/5

Published by morethoughtsfromyaa

A millennial with far too many thoughts and opinions about books, film and tv which nobody asked for, but which are nonetheless much appreciated. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!

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