Dolan has captured social media and its impact on relationships in the most accurate way I have read.
By Joyce Dignam
Exciting Times, Naoise Dolan’s debut novel was sold at a seven-way auction to much anticipation. However, despite comparisons to Sally Rooney and hopefulness of a new millennial literary voice, Exciting Times is, unfortunately, not all that exciting. Although it has plenty to offer, the novel leaves a lot to be desired.
The story follows Ava, a recent graduate from Dublin who moves to Hong Kong and ends up teaching English as a foreign language, where she is underpaid and under-appreciated. She is in a relationship of sorts with Julian, a British banker whose apartment she lives in rent-free while she is struggling financially.
When Julian returns to the UK on business, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born lawyer who is as charming as Julian is cold. When Ava and Edith get involved romantically, things begin to get more complicated. Although the novel is split into three sections; Julian, Edith and Julian and Edith, this is not a love-triangle and the tension exists mostly within Ava and her struggles with self-loathing.
Exciting Times is fiercely political, and Dolan captures the struggles of the twenty- something’s reality very well. There are not many novelists writing about spending absurd money to live in a room in an Airbnb or about being forced abroad upon graduating. Ava is acutely aware of class and the power that is so closely related to it and she plays with these power relations to her advantage. This is what is most interesting about Ava’s character – she is complex and at times, contradictory. While she criticises Julian’s Eton education and how he earns significantly more money than most people she knows, she has no qualms spending this money or using his credit card on her new girlfriend when he is away on business.
However, while these astute insights into the realities of twenty-first-century politics are needed in literature and can be refreshing to read, they are often overwrought and on the nose. “Show don’t tell” is not employed by Dolan when it comes to politics. Rather than showing us the class differences, power relations and injustices of modern capitalism through character development, plot and nuance, Ava tells us outright what the political message is. These messages do not need to be dumbed down for the reader and can come across as preaching.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the novel is that there is very little at stake for its characters. In a first-person narrative, the novel takes place mostly in Ava’s head and it is not out of place to have pages of text which consist purely of Ava’s musings. She is dry- humoured, deadpan, and intelligent which is at times, endearing but she is also self-obsessed.
So, while the relationship worries and terrible job and the expense of renting are all relatable and relevant issues, Ava’s entitlement, her obsessive and insular thinking, make them less so. Especially when, at times her problems do not seem like problems at all. While Dolan’s illumination of one’s relationship with themselves, loneliness, modern romance, and human connection is gorgeous, these insights are not enough to sustain a novel.
But the novel does have a lot to offer. Dolan gives a depiction of Irishness that really hits the mark – from the Irish mammy on the phone to a seemingly built-in sense of Catholic guilt. Ava’s Hong Kong adventures are always influenced by her life back in Dublin and are tinted by a bittersweet nostalgia, a love-hate relationship with her home country that many Irish readers will relate to. Dolan has captured social media and its impact on relationships in the most accurate way I have read. Ava is self-destructive in many ways and her use of social media is an outlet for that. She lurks her lover’s profiles, finds images from their past, drafts, re-drafts and does not send messages until she accidentally does. This accurate portrayal of the role social media can play in our lives is well-needed and Dolan does it so well.
Exciting Times is a witty, deadpan debut with plenty of potential. With more refining, Naoise Dolan is set to take the literary scene by storm.