Monday, November 8, 2021

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan


I write this review wearing a cat granny sweatshirt with a wine stain on it, calmly bewildered that so many people seem to hate this book. On the surface, it feels like EXCITING TIMES the type of book so many of my friends have been asking for. It's set in a non-Western location (Hong Kong), with a morally ambiguous and-- I would argue-- unreliable narrator who masks her anxiety beyond a cold an emotionless parsing of interactions while trying to navigate her uncertainties about her sexuality, class, and lack of ambition.

When we first meet Ava, she's the "kept" FWB of a British banker named Julian who makes it painfully clear that he can take her or leave her. And despite her misgivings about this-- or maybe because of them-- she stays with him while teaching English to young Hongkongese children. She feels isolated from her coworkers and peers, and being adrift as a foreigner in a society that was also colonized by the British (she's Irish) allows her to put distance between the relationships back home that fuel her uncertainty and inadequacy.

Then she meets Edith, a Hongkongese woman who was born abroad and then came back and now works as a lawyer. Edith is everything Julian is not. She actually seems to care about Ava and find her interesting and worth pursuing in the ways that Julian does not. They bond over their shared love of Hong Kong and their own mutual pretensions, but the whole time that Ava and Edith are seeing each other, Ava isn't sure if Edith is into women or, if she is, where that leaves her relationship with Julian.

It's messy and confusing and up until the last quarter of the book, I really, really loved it. I'm a little confused by some of the reviews claiming that this is a racist book, because the entire book seems to feel like a deconstruction of the foreigner's view of Hong Kong, and how British classism and snobbery have infiltrated the culture irrevocably, and how even this is some ways preferable to the looming and uncertain threat of China. I also feel like Ava is meant to act as an unreliable narrator who doesn't realize that she's also using her position in the country for her own selfish ends, and the moments when she really sees Hong Kong, and its people, as more than just backdrops happen more and more as the story progresses, and spends more time from stuffy old Julian and his awful, stuffy friends. 

I wasn't fond of the ending, as I said. It didn't ruin the book for me but it felt unrealistic. I did love Ava's removed narrative, though. She actually reminded me a lot of myself in my early twenties when I was depressed and unhappy. It felt like her emotionless tone was a mask she wore to convince herself and others that she didn't care and therefore couldn't be hurt. She even says as much when she tells us, the readers, how she games Julian, closely editing and then reediting her texts to him until they are impossible to misconstrue. It felt like the narrative was a larger reflection of that revelation.

Anyway, I like this book and I'm sorry more people didn't. I almost didn't buy the book because so many of my friends disliked it but then I read the sample and fell in love with the prose, so if you like the idea of reading an interesting book set in an interesting place with an interesting heroine, and you don't mind if the writing is convoluted as long as it's pretty, this might be the book for you.

3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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