The arch title of Naoise Dolan's whipsmart debut novel, Exciting Times, is the first indicator of the author's style. Not a lot happens in the exterior world of the book. A modern love story of sorts, it follows a year or so in the life of Ava, a 22-year-old Irish woman working as a foreign-language teacher in Hong Kong. The voice is astute, sardonic and highly emotionally aware. The exciting times mainly take place inside her head, where a vast, neurotic mind constantly analyses her own behaviour and second-guesses the actions of others.
Exciting Times is an impressive, cerebral debut written with brio and humour. Ava is largely uninterested in her poorly paid job and her peers, and the first-person narrative instead focuses her energy on two seminal relationships over the course of the novel. For all its zeitgeist feel and interest in modern culture, there is a classic structure underpinning proceedings. Split into three sections – Julian; Edith; Edith and Julian – Dolan presents us with thesis, antithesis and something approaching synthesis in the vibrant closing third.
There is perhaps too much banter with her new banker friend, Julian, before we've had time to settle into her world
Ava's voice takes a while to get used to. She is precocious and quick-witted. There is perhaps too much banter with her new banker friend, Julian, before we've had time to settle into her world. There are strong parallels with the intelligent female narrators in the writing of Nicole Flattery and Sally Rooney. All three are Trinity College Dublin graduates who write with their fingers on the pulse. Rooney's Conversations with Friends has particular resonance: fast-moving, tangled relationships that laugh in the face of heterosexual monogamy.
Dolan’s prose isn’t as seamless as her remarkable contemporary. The self-aware commentary in Exciting Times over-reaches at times – “Joan, my manager – one, holy, and apostolic, which there was money in being, though not Catholic since there wasn’t” – but it is a minor criticism of a debut that is as intricate as it is brash, with a style that is charmingly belligerent from start to finish. Interestingly, Rooney herself saw the book’s potential, publishing an excerpt in the Stinging Fly during her time as editor.
Dolan's novel nails the depressing zeitgeist of the recession, where educated young people leave an Ireland of no money and no jobs. There is plenty of thoughtful-provoking social commentary in her debut. She is, for example, wonderfully clear on the injustices done to women in a country finally on the cusp of change: "In Ireland you got five years for rape, fourteen for aborting your rapist's foetus, and a lifetime in the laundries for the fact of being raped, and there was a laundry still open when you were born."
Both of Ava's love interests are vibrantly drawn, layered and interesting characters in their own right
The observations are keen, heartfelt and delivered in a brutally nonchalant style. A passing comment to Edith about rape says so much: “You could tell who’d been through it and who hadn’t because when you told someone who hadn’t, they were hungry for details.” The book is also packed with one-liners, delivered in a sparing, deadpan tone: “In college people had liked that I could roll cigarettes – despite not smoking – and that I didn’t interrupt them when they talked about Infinite Jest.”
The same tone proves most effective when it comes to relating character. Both of Ava’s love interests are vibrantly drawn, layered and interesting characters in their own right. Julian is English, late 20s, with a well-paid job in corporate finance: “[He] had gone to Eton and was an only child. These were the two least surprising facts anyone had ever told me about themselves.”
Julian offers Ava a rent-free room in his plush apartment, a queasy deal that leaves Ava second-guessing his interest in her. The pair are well-matched intellectually, and in their detachment from each other and their loved ones. Ava isn’t the victim in the scenario – in fact, it’s difficult to know who is using whom: “If something cost 1 per cent of his income or 10 per cent of mine, why shouldn’t he take care of it?” Side characters are equally vivid, from Julian’s obnoxious friends to the girlfriend of one of his colleagues: “Victoria was good at wearing clothes. She was so beautiful I couldn’t see why she was talking to me.”
The girls connect instantly and their relationship develops in a very modern way that is beautifully suited to Ava's preoccupation with language and communication
The heart of the book emerges with the arrival of Edith, a Hong Kong solicitor who has studied in England. The girls connect instantly and their relationship develops in a very modern way that is beautifully suited to Ava’s preoccupation with language and communication: “I knew Edith was typing and seeing words form on her side, but they weren’t there on mine, which made them subjunctive: wish or feeling, less than fact.”
For a novel that spends most of its time inside the protagonist’s head, it is a surprisingly exciting read, heralding for sure a new star in Irish writing.