The Bell Jar but make it Irish – Reading Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Just because she happens to be Irish, millennial and female, doesn’t mean you get to call Naoise Dolan Sally Rooney‘s twin.

Hong Kong, deadpan prose and 275 pages of solipsism. This is Naoise Dolan’s debut novel and, although I’ve just made it sound a bit crap with that summary, Exciting Times is one of the best books of 2020.

Ava is tired of Dublin. She’s tired of small town mentality and the fact abortions still aren’t legal. After leaving for Hong Kong to be a TEFL teacher, she meets super-rich banker, Julian, and begins living in his apartment for free. Disturbed yet somehow turned on by the fact that the power balance is tipped considerably in Julian’s favour, Ava struggles between the convenience of being a kept woman and being a good feminist. As tension grows surrounding money, love and the pair’s egos, when Julian is out of town, the beautiful Edith comes along and catches Ava’s eye…

“I wasn’t good at most things but I was good at men, and Julian was the richest man I’d ever been good at.”

With pure wit and vigour, our cynical narrator, Ava, carries the entirety of Exciting Times on her sarcastic little Irish shoulders. That’s not a criticism on the rest of the novel, but as Exciting Times consists pretty much entirely of Ava’s thoughts and feelings toward the people around her, everything she said was honestly gold.

“he asked if I liked girls. I wanted to say: my chief sexual preference is that I don’t like you.” 

Okay yeah, at times you find yourself wondering ‘does this gal ever step outside herself and realise that there are other people in the world and she is not the centre of the universe?’, but then she says something funny and you get over it. Like a mixture of the ever-frank Esther Greenwood from Plath’s The Bell Jar, and the blond one from Derry Girls (I realise this is Northern Ireland not the Republic btw), I couldn’t get enough of Dolan’s creation.

“Most English people said ‘what’ as ‘wot’, though authors only spelled it ‘wot’ when the characters were poor.” 

Although the ‘will they won’t they’ love triangle takes up a considerable amount of the plot, Dolan expertly provides a subtle commentary on both Irish and British politics, colonialism, and the English Language. While Ava seems to flourish in her job as a TEFL teacher (though she would probably say otherwise), her ability to communicate and process her own emotions as well as other people’s often falls short.

I listened to an interview with Dolan on the Adulting podcast where she discusses how her autism diagnoses plays a part in the way she understands and communicates with people. In the same way, Ava communicates and organises her thinking in an scatty, anxious fashion; drafting and deleting numerous messages to Edith and to Julian. It’s a very different way of expressing emotion than you’d ordinarily seen in literature, but it’s accurate and indicative of how many of us untangle and make sense of our emotions today.

And one last thing: comparisons between Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney are superficial at best. On paper they sound similar, but Normal People and Exciting Times are nothing alike. Surely it’s possible for the two writers to coexist as queer Irish women without anyone saying one emulates the other? Is that okay with everyone? I’m looking at you, The Guardian.

Exciting Times gets four and a half stars – I’m holding one half of a star hostage until Dolan writes a sequel.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published by Lily Evans

writing about books

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