'Exciting Times' by Naoise Dolan
Ava is twentysomething and Irish, two characteristics that loom large in her self-image. For reasons not altogether clear, but vaguely associated with some minor scandal or trauma, she has found herself teaching English in Hong Kong. It is there she meets Julian, a somewhat older (by only about six years, though Ava seems to consider this quite enough for him to be considered worldly as compared to her) banker, with whom she falls into an ill-defined relationship. She first moves into his swanky apartment, abandoning her share-house where her housemates are constantly trying to engage and figure her out. Julian does neither. He simply allows Ava to live in the spare room of his apartment, rent-free until eventually--perhaps inevitably--their relationship turns sexual. They aren't "together" they keep telling people, yet in a strange way they are connected. They are both snide and aloof, and bring to the other something they think they lack in themselves. That Julian is English, upper-middle-class and Oxford-educated feeds into Ava's insecurities about their relationship, as well as her general insecurities about her own roots. And though Julian doesn't seem to share her class-consciousness, he certainly shares her resistance to commitment.
When Julian has to return to England for work for several months, it is simpy understood--in their vague, elliptical style of communication--that Ava will stay on in his apartment, continue to use his credit cards, and otherwise do as she pleases. What pleases her is Edith, a chic, Chinese-but-British educated woman who, like Julian is drawn to Ava. And as with Julian, Ava spends an extraordinary amount of time stupefied by why the clearly superior-to-her Edith wants to spend any time with her at all.
As love-triangles go, this is probably one of the best I've ever read. This isn't a romance by any means, but it was a skilled portrayal of a young woman coming to terms with who and what she wants, by considering two very different people and the way they make her feel and what they teach her about herself. I enjoyed the main protagonist's penchant for over-analysis and self-criticism, as well as her discursive musings about race, gender, class and even colonialism. She'll easily remind the reader of that super-smart, somewhat quiet young woman you know, who even when she speaks, is inscrutable and snide, even superior; the person you read as so self-protective, you never really feel like you know them at all, and who you are later shocked to learn often feels deeply insecure and awkward and even frightened.
I think this author is ill-served by being compared to Sally Rooney just because she is young, and Irish. Certainly they're part of what seems to be a new generation of modern talent from Ireland (and I can emphasize how much I love Rooney's work), but Naoise Dolan's voice is distinct and unique and deserves its own accolades. I look forward to reading more from her.
My Rating: ★★★★