- 03 Jun 20
A compelling and wickedly funny exploration of a Hong Kong love triangle, Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is one of the debut novels of the year.
Dublin author Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times is the finest Irish literary debut of 2020. Boasting hugely impressive style and humour, it’s narrated by Irish ex-pat Ava, whose spell in Hong Kong sees her fall first for suave English banker Julian, and later for half-Chinese, half-Singaporean lawyer Edith.
It’s as insightful a tale about the neurotic nature of 21st century relationships as you could wish for, and the central entanglement should take its place among the classic literary love triangles. Dolan herself relocated to Hong Kong after studying in Trinity and Oxford – was there a particular reason for the move?
“There wasn’t a huge thought process behind it,” she reflects. “I guess I had the assumption the majority of people do – that if you want to not live with your parents, you have to go elsewhere. I liked Hong Kong, it’s so much more structured and reliable than Dublin.
“In terms of public transport, it’s far easier to get to a range of things, because it’s all so small. At the same time, there’s such variety. I loved that you could just go hiking in 30 minutes.”
Despite the Hong Kong setting of Exciting Times, Dolan says the story isn’t autobiographical.
“I was fairly busy there, teaching English and writing,” she notes. “The book wasn’t really about my experiences – I just wanted to write a novel and set it in that ex-pat head-space. I was interested in the emotional dynamics of it, and Hong Kong was the only place I’d been an ex-pat, so I was kind of limited in scope.”
In one of the book’s most delicious observations, it’s noted that Julian works for the kind of financial institution that caused the economic crash Ava has just left behind in Ireland. What does Dolan see as the basis of the seemingly unlikely attraction between the pair?
“It’s the lack of a particular reason that characterises it as an ex-pat type of set-up,” she considers. “You can’t imagine two people like that having meaningful contact somewhere like London, because there’s just a greater range of people you can talk to. But in Hong Kong, in that limited kind of social sphere, it doesn’t take much to make friends with someone. That’s what interested me.”
Although there is a certain looseness to Ava and Julian’s relationship, her world is still upended when Edith enters the picture. Does the author feel Edith brings a different dimension to Ava’s life?
“I suppose it’s the sincerity of that dynamic,” she replies. “That’s both because Edith is more sincere as a person, and because the power dynamics allow for greater sincerity on Ava’s part as well. Ava narrates it all in the first person while it’s happening, and in a fairly in-the-moment way – she’s not very retrospective in how she narrates it, even though it’s in the past tense.
“As a result, we get to know a version of her who isn’t interested in that sincerity, and then later a version of her who is. So we get those two different perspectives.”
As for the conversation topic du jour, how has Naoise been finding life during lockdown?
“My immediate life has been pretty busy because of all the activity around publication,” she says. “I’m safe and well, though, so I’m luckier than a lot of people.”
How does she feel we’ve coped with the crisis generally?
“We’ve done better than some countries in terms of setting clear guidelines and protecting incomes,” considers Naoise, “but a lot of long-term problems with housing and healthcare have really come to the fore. It’s not compatible with public health to run a country the way Fine Gael have been running Ireland, and action was needed in those sectors well before the pandemic hit. We weren’t ready for a ‘crisis’ because the old normal was already a crisis; and most people were aware of that already, which is why the last general election went the way it did.”
Finally, how does Naoise feel the pandemic will affect literature over the next few years?
“I think anything that makes it harder for people to survive will negatively affect literature,” she responds. “When inequality worsens, there’s less time and space and energy to write. The opportunities get narrower, so the pool of talent gets narrower, so the literary output gets narrower. I hope I’m wrong and that the pandemic causes us to move towards a fairer society; if we do, then literature will improve as a knock-on effect. But right now, the pandemic just seems to be worsening inequality.”
• Exciting Times is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.