Naoise Dolan’s ‘Exciting Times’ Is Abound With Complex Relationships

Exciting Times Book CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

It’s no small wonder that Sally Rooney‘s laconic, crystalline prose would harbinger the introduction of similar writers into the resurrected strains of social realism brought forth by Conversations with Friends and Normal People. The narrative bent of these stories hinges upon the minutiae of interpersonal relationships, which animate the loose, marriage plot-like structure Rooney brilliantly molds into the backbone of her novels. What holds her aloft as the pinnacle of this genre is her consistent ability to render the labyrinthine folds of human relationships within the private and public spheres, showing, in no uncertain terms, that the personal and political are inextricably linked in her characters’ lives.

Naoise Dolan would appear to be Rooney’s immediate successor. The unembellished, incisive, methodical narrative that elevates Rooney’s work as the ultimate uncanny depiction of an educated millennial milieu is mirrored clearly in Dolan’s debut. Exciting Times, which was excerpted in The Stinging Fly literary magazine during Rooney’s tenure as editor, attempts to lay bare the multifarious aspects of precarity that exist between its characters and those characters’ connections to the wider world. Some would suggest Rooney and Dolan tapped into this ever-beleaguered millennial unconscious, which is undoubtedly true to some extent; other writers have manifested the same observations. But seeing as both writers are Irish and avowed Marxists, it seems the road paved by Rooney and traveled by Dolan is far narrower in scope than the wide planes of general discontent, and their aim is far more pointed.

In Dolan’s novel, twenty-two-year-old Ava leaves Ireland to teach English to wealthy children in Hong Kong. From one colonial outpost to the next, the class structures embedded within daily life, professional and social, do not escape her caustic appraisal. She forms a relationship with Julian, a middle-class English banker out of a deep-seated need to engage with these class structures – to manipulate, submit, and endlessly reconstruct the power dynamic between herself and someone who treats her as little more than a source of amusement. When she moves in with Julian, ostensibly to save money, Ava becomes even more entangled in the relationship, which often seems more like an unsolvable geometric proof than a romance.

When Ava meets Edith, a brilliant, forthright lawyer with whom an easy, relatively uncomplicated relationship forms, she is forced to choose between the two. While her relationship with Julian is predictable in its conversational sparring, Edith provides a certain tender comfort that lacks in the former. Yet, Edith’s family would never accept a same-sex relationship, and Ava can’t seem to disentangle herself from Julian.

As Ava weaves an increasingly complicated emotional web around the three, readers must contend with the inevitable frustrations that arise from a character whose calculations are constantly barbed and whose affectations teeter on manipulative. We certainly empathize with the ever-present pitfalls of virtual communication and nod in agreement at her observations about interacting across class boundaries. But it seems, at times, that Ava becomes something of a mouthpiece for Dolan’s political touches rather than a character that successfully embodies said political argument at work. And while Dolan presents three conversational masters in her main characters, only Ava seems incapable of parsing the reasoning behind her motivations. Her meandering indecisiveness, perhaps relatable to some, may cause others to throw their hands up as she fails to truly grasp the nature of her drives.

Dolan’s command of keen observation allows her an impressive amount of adroit maneuvering within the simple narrative structure common to this genre. While some aspects of it fall flat in the hands of an imperfectly imperfect narrator, whose machinations don’t always pass muster, Dolan’s prowess comes through strongly in her observational details and mastery of dialogue – an obvious necessity for the successor of a novelist whose sensational first novel was titled Conversations with Friends. Readers follow along as though floating in a river whose turns are unknown, waiting to see who will gain the upper hand. The unceasing battle never truly seems to end.

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