Deemed the next Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan’s debut novel Exciting Times tells the story of 22 year old Ava who has left Ireland for a badly-paid teaching job in Hong Kong. The novel documents the unlikely relationships she forms with banker Julian, and social media obsessed Edith. I read this book about a month ago now and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it. Although I consumed it within two days and was therefore clearly hooked by it, on reflection I feel like nothing major really happened?! Considering the novel is called Exciting Times, I wouldn’t describe the plot as being particularly exciting. It seems the exciting times will come after the ending, as for the majority of the text Ava is either disappointed, upset, confused or regretful, the moments of joy she has seeming to be few and far between.
“You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal… you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself you’re especially bad.”
Split into three parts the novel flows seamlessly, the monthly chronology of each chapter keeping it fast-moving and easy to read. The first two parts explore Ava’s relationship with both Julian and Edith respectively, and the third explores what happens when these two relationships collide. As I said, not much happens in terms of actual events, so if you’re into books packed full of action and plot twists this probably isn’t the book for you. However, the book does succeed in providing a detailed account of how relationships grow and how feelings develop. Like Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Exciting Times is almost a journal for an ordinary Irish girl and her extraordinary feelings. Ava, Julian and Edith are all incredibly normal people, yet the relationships Ava forms with them both in the foreign world of Hong Kong are so different to anything she could have ever imagined experiencing in Ireland.
“My desire was for Julian’s feelings to be stronger than mine….I wanted a power imbalance, and I wanted it to benefit me.”
Although this perhaps hasn’t been the most positive review so far, Dolan does highlight interesting themes of class, gender, culture and power all through a sharp and witty tone that keeps the reader hooked. The characters are honest, intriguing, and it is clear that Dolan doesn’t care about how likeable they seem – they’re real.
“i broke up with you because you threatened to break up with me. i felt your power and wanted to feel my own. i did. it worked. i hate it.”
Power is a huge theme in the novel and the questions Dolan raises surrounding the power dynamics within relationships are thought-provoking and valid. It is natural to feel vulnerable in a relationship and therefore perfectly logical to remain guarded in order to minimise the heartbreak if the relationship was to end. But to unapologetically admit that you wish you’re partner were married so that you would have the power to “ruin him”, or to confess that the only reason you broke up with someone is because they threatened to break up with you is an outright defence mechanism. Throughout the novel Ava makes many shocking revelations along the lines of those mentioned, and whilst at first you may think “oh my god how can she think like that”, once you consider it it does kind of make sense. She doesn’t want to be vulnerable, or fearful, she wants to feel in control. A 50/50 equal power balance doesn’t even work for Ava – she always has to have more. But relationships don’t work like that, you can never second guess what another person will do or how they feel – I can’t quite figure out if Ava knows this is true deep down, yet she desperately tries to prove herself otherwise.
Overall, I can definitely see the comparisons with Sally Rooney’s novels, so if you’re a fan of them you’ll probably love this book, if not I’d steer clear. I would say it has an unique concept which raises really interesting and engaging themes and ideas, but I wouldn’t say its in my top ten.