When a grieving young Irish woman flees her homeland to Hong Kong to teach English as a foreign language under precarious circumstances, it can be seen as the standard way to deal with the crisis of life today. But one can also see a broken confrontation with the complex colonial history (when Hong Kong became a British colony in 1841, Ireland – itself a colony – was part of the United Kingdom).
This reading becomes fiercer—and more complex—when 22-year-old left-wing feminist Ava begins an affair with the older British investment banker Julian in Hong Kong (after all, it was bankers like him who brought Ireland to ruin in 2008). . Ava quickly moves into Julian’s luxury high-rise apartment and lets him carry her – then Hong Kong-born Edith Mei-Ling enters her life.
The political dimension of identity and class in Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, “Exciting Times,” has drawn comparisons to Dolan’s former college classmate Sally Rooney. But even more so than her second most famous book, “Normale Menschen” (2018), Dolan is reminiscent of Ronnie’s debut, “Conversations with Friends” (2017), which, along with class relationships, makes the difference between noncommittal relationships and true love as well. About homosexuality, sexual identity and polygamy. Like Rooney’s novels, Dolan’s book does not read primarily as a social message, but at the same time reads as a very interesting and entertaining story about young people searching for their place in life, in the world – and above all in their love lives. The multiverse.
For example, Julian is first and foremost a good first friend in an environment unfamiliar to first-person narrator Ava. They drink fine wines, party with Julian’s suspicious expat community, and have smart, witty conversations all night long. When he later buys her expensive clothes and she gives him a sucker, practical lack of commitment from her contact is also a way to hide from your commitment fears. For Ava, who is good at getting along with men but actually feels more attracted to women (which she doesn’t easily admit), following submissive routines like cleaning Julian’s shoes and ironing his shirts is strange: the experience of strength: »What I wanted was Julian felt me more than I did. (…) I wanted an imbalance of power in my favour.”
At the same time, this constellation can also be read on a supra-individual level. If the perilous Irish woman Ava is somehow herself in a post-colonial relationship with the British banker Julian, it is through her relationship with him that she becomes a partner in a more comprehensive history of colonialism. Just as the two old Europeans literally float above the former colonial area in Julian’s lofty apartment, there is still the “neo-colonial” structure of the old European domination, which is just as evident in the language lessons at Ava as in Julian’s circle of friends and his share deals.
On the other hand, it turns out that the whole thing is not so simple when Hong Kong lawyer Edith appears while Julian has to go to London for a few months. Just like Ava who is only 22 years old, Edith plays in Julian’s league professionally. In fact, like him, she was at an elite English university and spoke the same classy dialect. But unlike Julian, she wants to have a real relationship with Ava, and a true love will grow between them. Ava does not tell Edith anything about her relationship with Julian. When he finally does return, the conflict is programmed – albeit slightly different than one might initially expect.
Felix Stefan also worked on the colonial background to Dolan’s novel in the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and compared the book less with Sally Rooney, which focused on Irish conditions, but rather with George Orwell’s first novel, “Tage in Burma” from 1934, which was critical but appears to be Stefan, who was not an inaccurate reader, misunderstood Dolan’s ending to the novel under the slice of his interpretation. In my view, there is no reason to say that Ava ultimately chooses the “old, white, rich, patriarchal” Europe of Julian and against Edith’s “weird new Asian future” – on the contrary. However, it remains exciting to the end – and it’s clearly open enough to divergent interpretations.
Naoise Dolan made her sensational debut with “Exciting Times”. With a cheeky and sly tone, as much humor and as sharp as sympathy, she reveals the mental state of her protagonists and the stupid decay of their expatriate community. The media of language and communication have also become frank spaces for thinking about the chaos of relationships, and Dolan repeatedly finds suggestive images: unlike the tropical cyclone season that gave her the title, Ava, for example, writes to Edith that Julian influences her excess of emotions like the Gulf Stream. (…) Because of him, the climate in Ireland is still temperate. Ava and Edith’s confessions about the social obstacles to their homosexual lives are also impressively straightforward. In her subtle mastery of social reflection in one-to-one relationships, Dolan is in no way inferior to fellow celebrity Sally Rooney. Ava, in her seemingly sovereign loneliness, may at first seem a bit insecure (and eventually also less willing to experiment) than Ronnie’s narrator in Conversations With Friends makes perfect sense. In post-colonial Hong Kong, Ava has once again shipped a level of rhetoric – but she is finally able to carry it with confidence.
Noise Dolan: Exciting Times. ad. Engel v. Ann Christine Noon. Rowohlt Verlag 2021, 320 pp., Hardcover, €20.
“Alcohol buff. Troublemaker. Introvert. Student. Social media lover. Web ninja. Bacon fan. Reader.”