Exciting Times

Naoise Dolan

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99

Review by Fiona Rintoul

“You’re careful with language, you strain everything for its meaning, and you’re not easily pleased with how other people put sentences together,” says Julian, an Old Etonian, ex-Oxbridge, ex-pat Hong Kong based banker, of Ava, the first-person protagonist in Naoise Dolan’s much anticipated debut novel Exciting Times.

Ava, who teaches English to the children of rich Hongkongers in a school that only employs white people where she isn’t allowed to have a pee between classes, is indeed careful – and clever – with language. She relentlessly dissects and interrogates it, teasing out all its subtexts and covert politics – just as she anatomises her weird relationship with Julian.

Language is one of Exciting Times’ most compelling themes. What it says about us. Who owns it. And what it can do.

Th book itself is an object lesson in the latter. Dolan is a writer entirely in command of her craft. Her grammar and punctation are a tribute to the Irish education system, and her mastery of the rules allows her to break them. The writing fairly sizzles on the page. Skies are “thick and bronchial”. Ava picks “around other feet like brambles”. Floors are “treacherous with polish”.

Dolan is particularly astute on the politics of language – particularly the widely exported, sometimes with force, English language. In the former British colony of Hong Kong, Ava must squash her natural Irish English in favour of British English, which is always correct.

“If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right.”

In many ways, Exciting Times is a book about colonialism: a citizen of one scarred former British colony goes to live in another and learns more about the dreadful wiles of the oppressor. Ava’s sometime paramour Edith (or Mei Ling) tells her that there is a misplaced nostalgia for the British Empire in Hong Kong “because at least it wasn’t China”. But the lovers see it more clearly.

“We both found it hilarious that Brits thought their international image was one of flaccid tea-loving Hugh Grantish butterfingery. If they’d been a bit more indirect during the Opium Wars, or a bit more self-effacing on Bloody Sunday, then our countries would have been most appreciative.”

Class, a British disease, is laid bare too. And with it, the throwaway arrogance of the entitled and privately educated. When he first meets Ava, Julian cannot believe that she’s never been to London. It’s such a short flight from Dublin!

“I was disappointed in me too,” Ava muses. “He’d never been to Ireland, but it would have been redundant to tell him it was also a short flight that way.”

Above all, Exciting Times is an acerbic tale of sex and love, set in the social media age. Ava types up messages she doesn’t send, then worries if the recipient will have seen that she was typing and therefore know that she was thinking about them. At one point, she has Julian and Edith’s Instagram accounts up side-by-side onscreen, watching their movements.

It isn’t always pretty. “I was a horrible person,” she observes, and it’s hard to disagree. “I was living in one person’s flat, fucking someone else without telling them, and regretted my behaviour primarily on the grounds that it meant I couldn’t mock the first person with the second.”

Persons who are over 30 and/or have ever had a proper problem may lose patience with this solipsism. But this is part of the book’s charm – especially as it is leavened with sharp political observations. Exciting Times is a frank portrait of a young woman navigating the cynical byways of modern love with unvarnished self-absorption.