I read most of Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times through my fingers. It’s so acutely observed that I almost couldn’t bear to keep reading – but I did, because the book somehow managed to tread the fine line between compelling and too awkward.
The novel is narrated by Ava, who makes a living by teaching English grammar to rich children in Hong Kong. She recounts her developing relationship with Julian, a wealthy and closed-off banker. She soon moves in with him, rent-free, leaving a grim and expensive house-share. He insists he doesn’t care about her – but when he gets called away to London for a few months, he lets Ava stay in the flat. During Julian’s absence, Ava then meets Edith, a lawyer apparently so busy that she sends emails in the middle of the theatre. But Edith makes time for Ava, and is soon round at Julian’s flat constantly, even buying flowers to put in the hallway. But Ava keeps quiet about the exact nature of her relationship and arrangement with Julian, so when he messages to say that he’s coming back to Hong Kong, all of Ava’s emotional gymnastics between her feelings towards both Edith and Julian threaten to be unbalanced. What will happen when both Julian and Edith find out about each other?
I read the book quickly, in a couple of sittings, although I had to keep putting it down when things got too awkward! I’ve had similar feelings with sitcoms like Peep Show – having to watch through my fingers, or pause the programme when it all becomes too awful. I’ve never had this feeling with a book before. This isn’t a criticism, though I could see how for some readers it might be off-putting: I enjoy a likeable protagonist too! But I was still compelled to pick the book up and finish it: Ava’s voice is gripping and deceptively cogent. Dolan’s writing is excellent – there are some very witty lines (you can’t really quote them out of context) and I enjoyed a lot of the verbal sparring between Julian and Ava.
I kept thinking that if I met Ava in real life I wouldn’t like her, or that she’d be the kind of friend forever at a distance, so much so that we might barely be friends at all apart from the repeated exposure to one another. My thoughts are telling though: I got drawn in enough by the book to feel as though Ava was fleshed out, her thoughts on display but still a bit inaccessible to me – much like a friend that isn’t really a friend.
To me, the book was a call to witness how awful some people can be – but that coming to that judgement is never quite as simple as it first appears. Like Ava, our narrator, we end up weighing up our options – am I:
a) seeing, witnessing the car-crash of another person’s relationships or
b) being seen, in wincing at the relatabilty of it all?
Disclosure: I was sent an Advance Review Copy (ARC) by W&N. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan is out in hardback in April 2020.