Dawn is breaking in Hong Kong, and Ava is reluctant to emerge from bed. Her unwillingness is existential: To relinquish the safety of her sheets will mean having to face the unconscionable task of brushing her teeth, and embarking on a series of additional actions that will require her to engage in the dispiriting business of “living my life as the person I was.”
That person at the center of “Exciting Times” is an Irish woman of 22 who has recently emptied her savings account (a repository she “charmingly” refers to as her “abortion fund”) in order to move to Hong Kong to teach English. When we encounter her at the start of the novel — a glittering debut that is seeing author Naoise Dolan likened to her bestselling compatriot, Sally Rooney — Ava is settled in her new city and negotiating the terrain of a perplexing friendship with a 28-year-old banker named Julian, educated at Eton College and the University of Oxford and dripping with the associated levels of privilege and wealth.
Both parties are adamant that their relationship is not a romantic one.
But they sleep together, spend most of their free time together, effectively live together. As Ava, who regards herself as incompetent at most things but “good at men,” puts it: “he was single and … while I could on occasion discharge the rocket science of making him want to [sleep with] me, he did not want to be my boyfriend. That hurt my ego. I wanted other people to care more about me than I did about them.”
As Ava’s liaison with Julian unfurls, we see it gather in unarticulated intensity. Until, roughly one-third of the way through the narrative, Julian is obliged to spend several months in London. In the wake of his departure, Ava — who has remained in her lover’s property and spends her time monitoring social media for signs of his activity in England — encounters Edith, a local who (in common with Julian) attended a British boarding school and who (distinct from Julian) boasts a personality Ava actually likes. As the two women bond, Ava is confronted with a variety of new emotions that relate, broadly, to the pain and uncertainty of falling and being in love. How can she reconcile the arrival of her devotion to Edith with the need she harbors for Julian? And how, she wonders, can you be sure of another person’s feelings for you?
Watching Ava deal with these questions results in an enterprise that is not much diversified by event. But in Dolan’s stimulating company, which carries something of the quality of friendship, this relatively static spectacle meets the reader as a blizzard of mordant exuberance. Much of the pleasure she brings to the page can be attributed to her linguistic sensitivity, and to an aptitude for comedy that operates by virtue of the nature of her perceptions. When Julian tells Ava she is “careful with language” and “not easily pleased with how other people put sentences together,” he is paying her a compliment that also applies to Dolan herself.
Moments of great resonance — “The skies were thick and bronchial”; “Scatty raindrops tapped against the window like bird’s feet”; “Brief-case bearers clopped out of turnstiles like breeding jennets” — sit alongside an array of ironic inversions and more that are concentrated, memorable, radiant: “Julian assessed whether women made jokes, decided we did, and laughed”; “I wondered if Victoria was a real person or three Mitford sisters in a long coat”; “Jane…seemed like another Victoria: it was as if someone else ironed everything for her — her whole life — and her job was to make new creases.”
Writing of this quality carries moral, as well as aesthetic, weight, and allows Dolan’s preoccupations to inhabit her prose instead of being addressed by it. Those preoccupations might seem only to pertain to the questions of intimacy, sexual orientation and polyamory that ripple the surface of the book. But Dolan’s deeper concern is with the cultural and political forces — Ireland’s illiberal and coercive attitude to the reproductive rights of women; the pernicious effects of a late capitalism allied to rampant patriarchy — that result in the kinds of social, domestic and emotional inequality of which Ava’s complicated, painful and poignantly uncertain way of being is an unhappy consequence.
At times, Dolan can flag, and her style is occasionally dented by unnecessarily mannered constructions (“material lucre”) and overemphases. But the prevailing experience of her endeavor is one of invigoration. “Exciting Times” is a work of phenomenal acuity and vehemence that, in the freshness of its apprehensions and the authority of its voice, is edifying, funny, tender, plangent and rich with the sensibility of an individual who, condemned to conditions that are not of her making, finds the space that she needs to take flight, and who proceeds as the person she was.
“Exciting Times” by Naoise Dolan, Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99