In the Début shortlist, this year’s Booker Prize winner is up against some “must-read” titles of the year. The authors tackled issues of racism, domestic slavery, prejudice, alcoholism and identity. Each of the shortlistees wrapped these complex themes in beautiful, sought-after packages and entertaining narratives, making it a tough category for this year’s judges.
Ava swerves sexually between Julian, an Etonian financier, and Edith, a lawyer, all the while hiding her feelings behind wisecracks. And she’s good at the zingers: her boss ‘dressed to please no one, not even himself’; an acquaintance seems like ‘someone else ironed everything for her — her whole life — and her role was to make new creases’. But after a while it feels as though the jokes are there more for sound than sense, and you wish she’d knock it off with the gags for a bit. Later in the book we do get closer to Ava’s emotions, mainly through her draft text messages to Julian and Edith, which gives the hairpin bends of the closing pages — she can’t! She can! She mustn’t! She has! — some oomph.
Exciting Times will please some readers, who will feel recognised by it. The way that social media is integrated into the narrative is deft. But it is not the sharp commentary on our political and social condition that its author takes it to be, nor – I pray – is it a particularly insightful treatment of contemporary romance. The social observations are too often off target, and sometimes alarmingly inane (‘Women are good at talking’; ‘I hated the British class system’; Edith ‘saw the merits of [socialism] but also liked having nice things’). It is hard not to concur, a little desperately, when Ava points out to the reader that hers is not ‘an internal monologue one would select if one could’. Exciting Times gives expression to a certain sensibility, which is authentically voiced by its caustic, wisecracking, self-involved narrator – one in which all those mental dials are tuned to a rather lower-case, low-amplitude frequency transmitting only facile understatement and flippant overstatement.
In Austen’s novels, we wait nervously for a letter to arrive with a romantic confession or we try to interpret the easy playfulness of a suitor’s manners, but Dolan’s characters are very much shaped by the digital age. In Exciting Times, it’s all about decoding the careful messages a lover projects through the squares of their Instagram account or the anxious anticipation provoked by the three dots that flash when somebody is typing a phone message. For all Dolan’s pithy, stinging dissections of modern life, it was the old-fashioned love triangle kept me rapt until the very final page.
While working as an English teacher, Ava becomes intrigued by the subjunctive form, which the novel itself seems to mimic; Ava is constantly wondering what would happen were she to tell Edith/Julian her true feelings. Part of me wishes she’d sent more of the text messages she drafts, if only to drive the plot. But the author’s commitment to the authenticity of her characters would never allow that, which means that, despite its title, if you’re looking for an exciting story, you won’t get it. That said, if you want a well-drawn, often funny portrait of a brooding twentysomething, Dolan does it beautifully.
Dolan’s writing is precise, acerbic and enviably good, and her characters are perfectly drawn. Ava’s casual stream-of-consciousness often has a delicious sting in the tail.
Besides class and wealth, the legacy of Ireland’s medieval restriction on abortion looms large (the book is set before it removed the constitutional ban on abortion in 2018). The novel is also interested in language and shifting meanings — explored both through the linguistic specifics of Ava’s job teaching English, and through the ways that Dolan’s characters say one thing but mean another. A sharp, assured debut — and not just for Rooney fangirls.
There are intimate moments here, even if they do occur at one remove. Nolan does a brilliant job of harnessing technology to her story, specifically the phone. Again, this recalls Rooney, who uses emails both sent and unsent as a potent fictional technique, and writes in Normal People that “the network is a form of intelligence in itself, containing them both, and containing their feelings for each other”. Dolan encapsulates this in a perfect image near the end of Exciting Times, when Ava is tensely watching the three little dots on her messaging app: “Edith is typing ...” reads her screen. It’s the closest we’ll ever come to telepathy: she realises Edith is thinking about her at that moment, and it changes everything.
Dolan’s milieu is Sally Rooney’s – young artistic types who have feelings, and belong in Dublin, wherever they are – but these aren’t normal people, more strawmen for the pyre. It makes for super pith (“Men were rarely true voyeurs. They wanted you to know they were there”), but adds up to a hail of parting shots, from which Dolan never fails to score. Edith is too good for this novel: she has depth of feeling, and knows that Gucci is “tourist bait”.
Exciting Times is an impressive, cerebral debut written with brio and humour. Ava is largely uninterested in her poorly paid job and her peers, and the first-person narrative instead focuses her energy on two seminal relationships over the course of the novel. For all its zeitgeist feel and interest in modern culture, there is a classic structure underpinning proceedings. Split into three sections – Julian; Edith; Edith and Julian – Dolan presents us with thesis, antithesis and something approaching synthesis in the vibrant closing third.
Sally Rooney is a fan of this diverting Irish debut and there are obvious points of comparison, as the drifting Ava agonises over unsent texts and how to square what becomes a love triangle.
While this lacks Rooney’s emotional depth and range, it in fairness reaches after neither. Dolan instead provides an effervescent snapshot of millennial, attachment-avoidant dating while weaving in a succession of cracking one-liners and some sharp observations on class, national identity and the oddities of the English language.
Exciting Times is very funny in its cool observation and the way it takes us inside Ava’s spirals of overthinking. Dolan’s writing is extremely sharp – both cutting and tart – but there are places where it feels overly cynical. Ava eventually comes to recognise that her cynicism is the protective garb of youth, but it is something the book also struggles to shrug off.
Dolan seasons the novel with insights about class, gender, race, colonialism, and language, though the result does not always bring depth of flavour. The most insightful – and raw – of these are the caustic observations about Ireland’s repressive attitudes to homosexuality and abortionand how they damage individual lives.