I’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