“Devilishly honest and fearlessly frank, Dolan’s prose cuts to the heart of the judgements we make and our feelings towards other people.”
On the surface, Naoise Dolan’s debut Exciting Times centres around the life and loves of Dublin expat Ava, newly arrived in Hong Kong, who gets her affections caught between an immovable object and an unstoppable force: banker vs lawyer. Julian vs Edith. More-than-friend-but-less-
Devilishly honest and fearlessly frank, Dolan’s prose cuts to the heart of the judgements we make and our feelings towards other people, with Ava’s often cutting but always genuine internal monologues and illuminating observations about self and other. This is exemplified in the revealing reflection: ‘I wished Julian were married. It would make me a powerful person who could ruin his life.’
Dolan evokes people and society with a subtle intelligence, dissecting the intricacies and singularities of social interaction and feeling – something one rarely sees outside a Victorian novel. Dolan showing her roots. Through Ava, for instance, we get a deliciously voyeuristic view of the power-play dynamics within intimate (and not so intimate) relationships: ‘There was something Shakespearean about imperious men going down on you: the mighty have fallen.’ These insights are so resonant that it brings the reader face-to-face with one’s own preciously guarded and admittedly grisly desire for ‘the upper hand’.
The action of the novel is artfully speckled with flecks of grammatical lessons which tie seamlessly into the narrative. These, simultaneously, remind the reader of how Ava spends her days (a TEFL teacher), and illuminate how Ava constructs her world through language. From Ava’s reflections we get to see how her world sometimes differs from that of those around her, and how grammar and words can make one feel more at odds with one’s fellow humans than united.
Exciting Times is an immensely enjoyable world to inhabit – a novel begging to be devoured in a single sitting (and not just because you have a review due in the next day, I swear). Its only offence is the caricaturisation of the ‘Irish mammy’. Though some may argue their mammy is a caricature (and I get that), in Exciting Times, a novel whose strength is in its characters’ depth, this makes Ava’s mother feel more like a prop than a human being. But this weakness is only visible because of the artful backdrop it’s painted into.
Another trailblazing debut emerging from Ireland, Exciting Times is one paperback you’ll be sad to finish and anxious to revisit, standing tall on Dolan’s impressive penchant for characterisation and observation.
Words: Courtney Byrne