#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!

Shortlist for Young Writer of the Year Award

You may have seen the announcement yesterday about the Shortlist for the Young Writer of the Year Award. Just in case you have missed it (and admittedly, there has been a lot of newsy stuff to push it off the front page), here it is in its full beauty:

I have to admit that I am quite excited about this shortlist. You’ll probably think that I have to say that if I am part of the Shadow Panel, but the truth is I haven’t read any of them, so am curious and very much looking forward to becoming better acquainted with them.

First of all, I always like to see some poetry on a shortlist, and this time we have two volumes of poetry, both of them debut collections. Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt has been described as elegiac, moving, perceptive and lifting the spirits with simple language and complex thought. Meanwhile, Surge by Jay Bernard is an exploration in poetry of the New Cross Fire of 1981, linking that tragic event with Grenfell and more generally with the experience of being black in the UK nowadays.

Catherine Cho’s book Inferno is non-fiction, a memoir of the author’s time in a psychiatric ward in America, following a severe case of post-partum psychosis. Motherhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates me, and this book seems to express our deepest, darkest fears about becoming possibly a bad mother and harming our child.

Naoise Dolan is a young Irish writer, so obviously she has been compared with Sally Rooney. This is a novel about a young Irish expat stuck in a dead-end job in Hong Kong, and it has been described as a milennial love story hovering between deadpan and sincerity. I am a sucker for expat stories and cross-cultural observations, so this should do the trick for me.

Finally, Marina Kemp’s Nightingale is also a story about displacement, and sounds rather more conventional, according to the blurb at least. A young nurse is running away from her past and ends up in a remote Languedoc village, looking after a bedridden old bully of a man.

Poetry, motherhood, expat community and France – what more could I wish for? The list is tailor-made for me! I also find it interesting that all of these are debuts. I wonder if this has always been the case with this prize, or if it just happened to be a particularly strong year for debuts in 2020. While I like to think that debut writers are encouraged, I sometimes wonder if it’s been even harder for young writers on their second book to see it disappear without trace in a year of delayed publication dates, closed libraries and bookshops, and no in-person literary festivals.

So, which of these are you most excited about reading and why? Can I tempt you to read along at least one or two of these?