Exciting Times is the debut novel from Irish writer Naoise Dolan (and one of the Headstuff Picks of 2020). In addition to appearing in best selling lists in the original English, it has also been translated into Italian where it has got rave reviews. Exciting Times was also nominated in the Best Newcomer Category at the An Post Irish Book Awards. As if that was not enough it has also been shortlisted for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize which is one of the world’s largest literary prizes. It is awarded to the best work of literary fiction published in the English language by an author under the age of 40.
Exciting Times is set in Hong Kong and where it’s narrator Ava, having just finished university, has moved in order to teach English. Even on this level it shares some similarities with the excellent Threshold by Rob Doyle. Ava had a rather original way to finance her trip to Hong Kong. She used an ‘abortion fund’ she had saved up during her time in college to pay for the flight and a room for the first month:
I knew I’d do anything for money. Throughout college back in Ireland, I’d kept a savings account that I charmingly termed ‘abortion fund’. It had €1,500 in it by the end. I knew some women who saved with their friends, and they all helped whoever was unlucky. But I didn’t trust anyone. I got the money together by waitressing, then kept adding to it after I had enough for a procedure in England. I liked watching the balance go up. The richer I got, the harder it would be for anyone to force me to do anything.
The novel revolves around the relationships between Ava/ Julian and Ava/ Edith. So, in ways it could be seen as a novel about a love triangle. And in ways it is. But, to reduce it to those terms would be to mistake the qualities of this wonderful story.
The novel deals with many issues. Although not the most original, it is certainly a very entertaining issue: communication (or lack thereof). Yes, communication. How people communicate or can’t as the case may be. I wouldn’t be the first to draw comparisons with Sally Rooney but theme of communication was something which is to the fore in both the writing of Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan.
The theme of communication is tied very directly to theme of power and in particular the dynamics of power in a relationship. For example, Ava at one stage feels that she has to wait for Julian to text her as to initiate the conversation would undermine his position.
‘Thanks for your time,’ he’d say as I left. I wasn’t sure if he put it formally to give himself an ironic get-out clause like I did, or if he was just unaware how stiff he sounded. He’d add: ‘I’ll text you.’ He seemed to think only a man could initiate a conversation. Worse still, it meant I couldn’t send him one first. It would look like I’d despaired of his getting in contact and was only doing it myself as a last resort.
Because we never really see the relationship from the point of view of Julian, we are always wondering what exactly he is getting out of it. It would be easy to think he just liked having a girlfriend at his beck and call but this is not the impression we get. Julian comes across as stiff, focussed (both on his job and on his place in the world) but fundamentally decent. Unfortunately, his one main weakness is that he is not much of a communicator. Similar to Mr B in Richardson’s Pamela, it would be interesting to see the same story told form Julian’s point of view.
The second major relationship in the novel is that of Ava and Edith. This relationship first takes off while Julian is travelling abroad with work. The description of Edith which begins the second part is worth brilliant:
Edith Zhang Mei Ling – English name Edith, Chinese name Mei Ling, family name Zhang – was a Hong Kong local, but she’d gone to boarding school in England, then to Cambridge. She was twenty-two like me, and now worked at Victoria’s law firm. Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation.
During her relationship with Edith, there is a great use of the various aspects of Instagram and WhatsApp. For example, Ava figures out how to view someone’s story without actually showing up as having viewed the story. She also types her messages in a notes before copying and pasting, following several edits, to ensure that the correct message is sent. The focus on this aspect of communication, far from a gimmick, demonstrates how difficult it is for two people who know each other well to communicate with each other.
“Why do you like me?” Ava asks him. “Who said I liked you?” he replies.
In many ways this dilemma or conundrum is at the core of the novel. Ava struggles to communicate with both Julian and Edith. Not that the blame lies with Ava, the fault lies with both parties but Dolan highlights this so well during the novel.
Another issue that is also related to communication is the discussion of English language. Ava teaches English in Hong Kong and this gives her numerous opportunities to reflect on aspects of the English language:
The week I started, they told me the common features of Hong Kong English and said to correct the children when they used them. ‘I go already’ to mean ‘I went’, that was wrong, though I understood it fine after the first few days. ‘Lah’ for emphasis – no lah, sorry lah – wasn’t English. I saw no difference between that and Irish people putting ‘sure’ in random places, it served a similar function sure, but that wasn’t English either. English was British.
Here we can see how English is used to almost undermine local identity. There is nothing incoherent about the way the Hong Kongers speak, much as Irish speakers of English have their own peculiar idioms but in the Language School where ‘correct’ English is a premium, then local idioms have no value.
One of the most interesting relationships in the novel occurs between Ava and Miles, Julian’s father who also lives in Hong Kong and works at the University. Miles makes an interesting observation:
It can be challenging making friends when you’ve first moved here,’ Miles said, snapping me out of it. ‘A lot of my exchange students find it quite isolating.
It is rather simple, and yet seems to speak to the core of the novel. Except in this case, the problem is not Hong Kong, it is a global problem where making friends is not always as easy as it ought to be.
Naoise Dolan is an Irish writer born in Dublin. She studied at Trinity College, followed by a master’s in Victorian literature at Oxford. Her writing has featured in The Dublin Review and TheStinging Fly.
Naoise’s debut novel EXCITING TIMES was published by W&N in the UK and by Ecco in the US in 2020.