Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: The art of self-sabotage

Cover imageI’d been looking forward to reading Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times for a while when I was offered a review copy. Nolan’s debut is one of the five titles shortlisted for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year award which I helped shadow judge two years ago. I have very fond memories of a particularly enjoyable event at the Groucho where I met bloggers I’d known virtually for years. Sadly, that won’t be on the cards this year but I hope the shadow judges will enjoy their stint. If Nolan’s novel is anything to go by they’re in for some treats.

People who’d gone to Oxford would tell you so even when it wasn’t the question

Ava has been in Hong Kong for a few weeks before she meets Julian in a bar. She’s living in a scuzzy Airbnb with two women she neither knows nor particularly likes, working as a TEFL teacher and discouraging attempts by her colleagues to get to know her. Julian counts as her first friend. They have little or nothing in common – Ava is from working-class Dublin with socialist tendencies, Julian is an Eton-educated banker – but eventually Ava moves into his spare room, then into his bedroom. She pays no rent, taking on a few domestic tasks unasked, while he picks up the tab for this and that, seemingly unaware of her sensitivity to the tilting power balance in their relationship if it can be called that. After several months, Julian introduces her to his father, a Marxist academic who lives just around the corner but who he rarely sees. Then, when he’s away on an extended trip to London, Ava meets Edith who shares Julian’s privileged background but is different in every other way. By the time Julian returns, Ava is faced with a dilemma.

I’d broken up with someone who’d told me how they’d felt, and I’d gone back to someone who either did not tell me, or felt nothing

Dolan’s novel is narrated through Ava’s snarky, self-absorbed voice, every insecurity minutely scrutinised. She’s acutely sensitive to class nuance, her antennae cocked for the taciturn Julian’s slightest signal and spends much of her time interpreting the tiniest of exchanges. Dolan packs her novel full with smart social observations, tartly expressed. Within a few pages I was spoilt for choice quotes, sharp witticisms at every turn. Towards the end, Julian comments on Ava’s careful precision with language which exactly describes Dolan’s own. Its depiction of a supremely dysfunctional relationship reminded me a little of Gwendoline Riley’s First Love but Dolan’s book is much funnier, excruciatingly so at times. I loved it: thoroughly deserving of its place on the Young Writer Award shortlist.

If you want to know which of the five shortlisted titles the shadow judges plumped for, all will be revealed on December 3rd but you’ll have to wait another week to here the judges’ verdict. I’ll be reviewing one other shortlisted title sometime next week. Blogger pal and shadow judge, Marina Sofia, is reviewing all five titles at Finding Time to Write.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 9781474613446 279 pages Hardback

19 thoughts on “Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan: The art of self-sabotage”

  1. Loved the review, particularly as this one is sitting on my TBR shelf (literally, physically) waiting for an afternoon in which I can just immerse myself in the reading experience. It’s nice to confirm that I have a treat in store (the previous review I read — Guardian maybe?–was also quite favorable) Many thanks also for the heads up on the Young Writer of the Year Award; I love getting lists from these kinds of events and wasn’t previously aware of this competition, which seems an ideal way to get some ideas about up and comers! I’ll definitely click over to check on the short list and the (ultimate) winner.

    1. Thank you, and delighted to introduced you to the prize. It’s usually a varied list – two novels, two poetry collections and a memoir this year. I hope you enjoy Exciting Times when you get to it

  2. Ha, you clearly enjoyed this one more than me! There were some really clever observations and turns of phrase, but overall it just felt like a really cold, chilling book. I have been trying desperately to catch up with my reviews this week, as I’ve read the full shortlist dutifully but not managed to keep up with the reviewing… And alas, yes, Zoom call to discuss the shortlist is not the same as meeting face to face! And a remote Awards ceremony, alas!

    1. I deliberately avoided your review as I was reading this one when you posted but I’ll pop over and have a look. Interesting how different our reactions are and, I suspect, it’ll be the same with Nightingale. Also avoiding that review for now! Perhaps all we blogger pals can have a get together in the ‘after times’

  3. Bidisha @ Chai and Chapters

    I really enjoyed your review. I’ve been particularly looking forward to this, especially because of all the comparison to Sally Rooney, whom I adore, but I also saw a lot of mixed reviews so I held off. Think it’s time I pick it up.

  4. It’s rally interesting to hear your positive response to this one Susan. I’ve heard very mixed reviews and thought that it might not be for me. However, you might have changed my mind!

  5. I loved this one too, almost to my surprise. Dolan’s voice is so cutting yet funny. It sounds like it mostly fell flat for the shadow panel, though. I do wish we could all have met up for a shortlist reading event, or for the award ceremony. We’ll have to watch the announcement online this year, and look forward to next year’s festivities instead. (You’ve written Nolan throughout.)

    1. Thank you so much for pointing that out! I much prefer to be corrected than not. I’m sorry the shadow judges weren’t so keen. I thought she’d managed to be both sharp and poignant in her portrayal of a young woman at sea with herself. Fingers crossed for a get together next year.

  6. This sounds interesting, though I think I might find aspects of the relationship between Ava and Julian to be uncomfortable. As you say it’s that power balance.

  7. I think I’m in a fairly similar place to Cathy, having seen some fairly mixed reviews over the past few months. It sounds sharp and very well written, but to be honest I suspect I mind find the tone a bit annoying. There’s a fine line between smart social observations and overly tart sideswipes, and I wonder if this novel would fall on the wrong side of that divide for me? It’s very subjective thing, I know…

  8. Pingback: Thoughts on the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Shortlist – Annabookbel

  9. This sounds like a rewarding read for those who enjoy relationship stories (which I do). The cover is so stark. Do you feel it’s a good representation for the novel?

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