#YoungWriterAward: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

When I saw the shortlisted titles for the Times/Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I have to admit that Exciting Times by Irish writer Naoise Dolan was the only one I had heard of. She had been praised as the ‘next Sally Rooney’, which was not the happiest of comparisons for me, since I wasn’t bowled over by Rooney. But I thought I would start there nevertheless, mostly because it was set in Hong Kong and I’ve always been keen on reading about different geographical locations and the culture shock that expats might experience.

At first all went well. The staccato style and deadpan, deadly sentences were amusing at first, especially when they make fun of rich people.

He’d said everything very slowly that night, so I’d assumed he was drunk – but he still did it sober, so I gathered he was rich.

[…]

Periodically she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it’s still there, Victoria. It’s not going anywhere. The cow’s dead.

Ava, the main protagonist, is well educated but comes from a less privileged background in Dublin and is now teaching English to children of wealthy Chinese families in Hong Kong. I failed to care about her lukewarm relationship with wealthy banker Julian, and was only marginally more invested in her burgeoning love for the dainty, Cambridge-educated Edith (Chinese name: Mei Ling), perhaps because Ava herself was so confused, cold and self-involved. This was not the charming confusion or deep despair of first love we might encounter in Le Grand Meaulnes or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It is not even the scheming machinations that ends in tragedy of Bonjour Tristesse. It is clinical and detached, at the mercies of modern technology: the one poignant moment was Ava watching the three blue dots that are a sign that someone is typing a message you are eagerly awaiting on the phone.

Next, I was disappointed in the lack of atmosphere. Although the book dutifully dropped Hong Kong place names and mention of local holidays, there was no sense of being immersed in that particular culture or location. The book might have been set anywhere else (in fact, it felt like a very London-based book, with so many of the characters being British). Perhaps that is typical of the Anglo expat experience in Hong Kong (I have certainly seen this replicated in Geneva), but it felt like a missed opportunity.

There were some things I did enjoy about the book. I enjoyed the acerbic observations about the ‘only correct form of English’ being British English.

‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. 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. I was teaching my students the same thing about white people. If I said things one way and their live-in Filipino nanny said them another, they were meant to defer to me.

And there was a fair amount of English-bashing which seemed to bring Ava and Edith closer, and which certainly made me guffaw:

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. ‘That’s why they can’t accept that they did colonialism,’ Edith said. ‘They see themselves as people who can’t even get a dog put down.’

However, after a while, these clever remarks started to sound a bit too much like the class clown trying to impress everybody with their cynicism. And it turned out that in terms of cultural differences, this book was more revealing about the differences between English upper middle classes and Irish working classes.

He was a rich Irish person, preferred having wealth in common with Victoria to Ireland in common with me, and was annoyed at us both for disabusing him that Victoria saw it that way. His moth said it was great to see another Mick out foreign, and his eyes said: don’t fuck this up for me.

Each of these quotes taken in isolation are rather brilliant, and I certainly appreciated certain passages. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed this more as a sharp, short novella. But the overall sensation I had after reading the book was that I’d been frozen by Ava’s icy temperament, and that I had been slashed and cut by too many razor-sharp remarks, without encountering any effort to thaw or heal me.

We will see what my fellow Shadow Judges made of it, but for me personally, it doesn’t feel like the winner of The Young Writers’ Award. However, the two next reviews will be of the poetry books, and I loved both of those!

19 thoughts on “#YoungWriterAward: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan”

  1. I’m very glad to have this glimpse into how you’re seeing the work of talented young writers. To be a Bright Young Thing getting published must be exciting, but some of us who are longer in the tooth may only have so much patience for a youthful and witty airing of frustrations with others. It’s clear that you’re on the job, and have been reading a lot! Wishing you some rest between insane levels of productivity!

    1. You know how they say the sum is greater than the parts – well, in this book I felt the parts were better than the sum. Still, it’s only the first book by this author. I’m sure she will get better as she masters the craft.

  2. Oh dear… Like you, I’ve seen Dolan being compared to Sally Rooney, which makes my heart sink a little bit. Not because I have anything against Rooney as a writer – Normal People is a very good book, much darker than it might seem at first sight — but I’d rather see an author being marketed on their own merits! That’s a pity about the lack of a compelling atmosphere/sense of place. It’s one of the things I look for in a novel, alongside character development and veracity/believability.

    1. Yes, I agree, each book deserves to be judged on its own merits. And while she seems to be part of a certain attitude (I would add Nell Zink and Ottessa Moshfegh to this list), it is clearly not just a generational thing or an Irish thing. That kind of comparison is too facile.

  3. You made me curious about this book when I saw it in your lineup, then I read the free sample on Amazon and was shocked at the distance between my expectations and her delivery, so I didn’t buy it… Thank you for “finding time to write”… reviews so we don’t need to find time to read overhyped books!

  4. Marina a very fair review. I did read it but was in no way blown away by it. I had big expectations going in. I wondered was I too old to read it? Did I just not ‘get’ the characters….

    1. Yes, I did wonder if I was too old! But I don’t think it’s just a generational thing: there is a certain coldness and calculation which just doesn’t resonate with me (and which I’ve seen in other recent writers who are older than Dolan).

  5. Sorry to hear this one didn’t sweep you away, Marina Sofia. The premise sounds so interesting, too! I kept thinking as I read your post that there were several missed opportunities here. Still, I did like a few of the passages you shared, and I look forward to your other reviews.

  6. Too bad you didn’t enjoy this more. I can see why it fell short for you in those areas. It reminded me a lot of another debut novel I read this year, Memorial by Bryan Washington, which, although it takes place in Houston and Osaka, is almost deliberately antivisual, hardly ever describing those settings. The way I chose to see it is that it was the internal and relational spaces that mattered for him. The same goes for Dolan, and they both write in a slightly flat style. Not my favourite form of storytelling, for sure, but I ended up admiring Exciting Times and enjoying the voice all the same. I don’t think it should win, though, as it would feel too much like a repeat of Sally Rooney’s victory.

    I’ve been keeping up with your fellow panellists’ reviews on Instagram and it’s looking like the poetry is popular! I’ll keep an eye out for your next reviews.

  7. Comparing to Sally Rooney isn’t a winning argument for me. I also was underwhelmed by both of her books, and didn’t understand the hype. I like her in interviews, and I probably agree with her outlook, but the books did nothing for me.

  8. Oh, and I add that I just finished “The Searcher,” by Tana French and loved it. Am in post good book slump right now.

  9. You’re absolutely right – we did have very different reactions! I felt that the cold, snarky wit hid a deep well of insecurity, glimpsed when we heard about Ava’s background. A defense she’s lumbered herself with. I think the ‘next Sally Rooney’ tag was a rather lazy comparison by the publishers made simply because Nolan is young, Irish and female but that’s so often the case.

    1. Yes, I did get the insecurity, and I certainly admired (and agreed with) some of the witty observations. I look forward to seeing what the author writes next.

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