By Naoise Dolan
Ecco. 247 pp. $27.99
Reviewed by Bethanne Patrick
Back in the days when the envoys of the British Empire made a habit of telling tall tales about far-off places, a statesman claimed that the phrase "may you live in interesting times" was a Chinese curse. As the 20th century progressed so did the phrase, evolving into: "May you live in exciting times."
It feels right that Irish novelist Naoise Dolan has appropriated part of that co-opted, mangled aphorism for her first book’s title. Exciting Times is set in Hong Kong post-secession, a “fragrant harbor” where British banking power still pushes against Asian political and cultural determination.
Ava, the protagonist, hails from Dublin; it is easy to forget, while reading her sly but vulnerable musings, that she is just 22, straight out of university and teaching English to grade-school children. Some of her moments of teaching are the book's best teachable moments. As she explains the aspirated "th," she thinks: "If the Irish didn't aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn't then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right."
Her free time consists of outings with fellow teachers in one of the city’s two nightclub districts, evenings that often end in drunken blackouts or in bed with her sort-of boyfriend Julian, who wears his British upper-class privilege like an invisible bowler hat. “Why do you like me?” Ava asks. “Who said I like you?” he shoots back as coolly as the caricature of an English spy.
As Ava ruminates too much about whether this is her exciting fate, a strange thing happens: She starts to care about other people. First, those students, whose encounters with their shared language move her; second, Julian's father, Miles, who lives nearby and needs company. Ava may not be in love with Julian, but the affection she feels for Miles as they share church services and meals out is real. What to do with such reality?
Enter Edith, a brilliant, beautiful young Chinese lawyer whose sophisticated presence attracts Ava immediately. Sadly, Dolan does not develop Edith as a character — are we supposed to intuit what makes Ava so interesting to her? Yet the crackling heat Ava feels for Edith is palpable.
For some time, Ava conceals Edith from Julian and vice versa, not wanting to risk losing both. That, ultimately, feels like Dolan's real concern: the things we do to stave off being left alone.
It is that dive into human consciousness that separates Dolan from the countrywoman to whom she is often compared, novelist Sally Rooney (Normal People). While both writers deal with class — offering cutting observations — Dolan pushes further to confront why we put up with it in the first place.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.” She wrote this review for the Washington Post.