The Book Shelf

A Review: Exciting Times

For this months review, Yinka is cracking open the debut novel from Naoise Dolan; a young Irish writer who has been long-listed for the Women's Prize For Fiction and compared to the likes of Sally Rooney. Exciting Times has everyone talking, but does it live up to the hype?

When we first meet Ava, a 22 year old Dublin girl living in Hong Kong, who describes herself as “good at men”, she is teaching English by day and living in a cramped house share by night. Ava seems distant, likeable enough but a bit lost. She left Ireland so soon after her graduation she was almost still wearing her cap and gown and hasn’t really fit into TEFL life. She teaches the grammar class because she lacks warmth and calls an AirBnB home. Enter Julian: a quirky British banker who lavishes time and money on our girl Ava. She allows him to buy her fancy dinners and clothes and eventually she finds herself living in his swanky apartment. In the spare room.

In what is potentially the meanest book I have ever had the pleasure of reviewing, Ava struggles with her need to be wanted more that she wants. It is a common human quirk, the feeling of wanting to be desired more than you desire, or needed more than you need. But how do you combat that when in a situation with a man who doesn’t rely on you for much? Julian likes Ava’s company sure, and he enjoys splashing the cash but there’s rarely anything more. Their conversations are sometimes awkward, with reading between the lines and second guessing becoming part of Ava’s every day.

There were times when I gasped (almost out loud, not quite but almost) because the words on the page were thoughts I had been plagued with in casual relationships, situationships and beyond. I am not sure if you’ve ever been there, but trying to decide if someone is just straight up and exactly what they say on the tin or if they hate you, well its exhausting. Add almost-casual sex with your landlord who refuses rent and its a bit of a mess.

It sounds like a simple thing to do- narrate the ups and downs of modern interaction but I haven’t found this much clarity in all of the lunches and brunches and girls nights and dinners. Naoise Dolan has hit the nail on the head with her quirky illustration of modern relationships. We know that the power-struggle trope isn’t new by any sense, but the thing that this book does oh so well? It thrusts it into the 21st century.

And just when the words on the page do start to read a bit like stories that have come before, we meet Edith. When Julian has to take an extended trip to London, Ava is whisked off of her feet by the Hong Kong lawyer whom she both wants and wants to be.
I won’t pretend that I am shocked by any of the directions this book takes, it isn’t a thriller that has you on your toes until the very end (and speaking of the end, that bit is a little confusing) am also not going to attempt to convince you that this book is for everyone. Quite frankly it takes a bit of work to get comfortable with the pages, feeling at times that you have skipped ahead accidentally only to find that the sentence really did end there and you just weren’t paying attention. But it is a fun read, it’s relatable.

This book is like the friend you know rubs people up the wrong way, says scathing things and maybe keeps it a little too “real” but you love her anyway. You know she means well when she asks the obvious questions like “if you want to be his girlfriend, why aren’t you?”

With its short sentences and sharp sarcasm, you will find that once you get into it you fly through this book and potentially see a little of yourself reflected back. A fair word of warning though, don’t expect too much from it, it isn’t here to help or solve your problems.

I am awarding Naoise Dolan’s debut novel a well deserved 3.5 worms out of 5

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