Exciting Times

Naoise Dolan

I’d been seeing this book everywhere and the cover is so beautiful that I decided to read it as part of the 2020 reading rush and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Ava is a 22 year old TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian, a rich English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her move into his guest room. Then Julian goes to London and Ava meets Edith, who actually listens when she talks and openly cares about her. But when Julian announces he will be returning to the apartment in Hong Kong, Ava’s two worlds collide.

On the one hand, this novel captures what it is to be young and not know who you are or what you want with a healthy dash of social commentary thrown in, but on the other there were many instances where I was just deeply frustrated with Ava, the protagonist.

In this witty, debut novel, Ava views relationships as a power struggle, frequently proclaiming herself to be ‘good at men.’ In her mind, relationships are an emotionless transaction of other, often more material, goods (such as luxurious and deeply expensive apartments). She sees her relationship with Julian as a bizarre competition of who can seem the most disinterested in the other while they live together and have sex. Yet she also makes it her primary goal to get him to admit to having deeper feelings for her. In contrast, Ava relaxes around Edith and learns to trust in Edith’s feelings for her (even if she fails to understand the reason for them). It is Ava’s continued obsession with Julian after having met Edith that is so frustrating, because she is so clearly much happier with Edith (which she acknowledges multiple times).

However, Ava’s character is best summed up by a line in the book itself when Edith says to Ava ‘I don’t think you’re interested in having a nice life’ and this is often how Ava’s choices seem. She obsesses over what her thoughts and feelings say about her identity but never appears to question why she behaves in ways that she fundamentally disagrees with or stop her from being happy. She makes every action into a political statement but is never satisfied with the statements being made. My developing frustration with Ava as a result of this is likely why I felt a slight relief at Edith’s section of the book because someone finally calls Ava on her determination to be unhappy.

Overall, my enjoyment of the story but growing frustration at Ava’s character led to some mixed feelings about the novel. Although it is still a poignantly written assessment of class and sex and if you are fan of Sally Rooney then you will love Naoise Dolan and should absolutely read Exciting Times.

Only Ever Yours

Louise O’Neill

Louise O’Neill quickly became one of my favourite authors after reading her novels Asking for It and The Surface Breaks and so I was thrilled that her debut novel, Only Ever Yours, did not disappoint.

The book is told from the perspective of Frieda, an eve entering her final year at school and struggling to hold up under the pressure to be perfect in order to be chosen as a companion. The book follows Frieda’s desperate attempts to remain ranked in the top 10 eves whilst her friendship with Isabel, who is buckling under the pressure, slowly fractures.

O’Neill writes with an intelligent severity that creates a world in which you can find nothing good and yet cannot stop reading. She generates a hope for a happy ending that you ultimately know is never possible.

She beautifully creates female characters so far removed from the heroines we so often seen that are kind, pure and, above all, good. In all her books, O’Neill focuses on young women trapped by their flaws of selfishness or jealousy, generated by a society that tells them that their value is limited to their beauty.

However, what is truly remarkable about her novels, is that despite the lack of likeable qualities she gives her characters, O’Neill never fails to make you sympathise with them because of the trauma they experience.

I will admit that at the start this was my least favourite of O’Neill’s novels, however this could have easily been because it was the first YA novel I’ve read in a while and so it took me slightly longer to get used to writing style or it may have been because this was her first novel, either way after a few chapters I was thoroughly engrossed in the book.

Frieda’s desperation and intense loneliness is beautifully conveyed, but what is truly fascinating is how convincingly O’Neill creates a world in which it is true that no cares about her. In contrast to our world where the response people with a state of mind like Frieda’s is to tell the individual how loved they are and to help them see their own worth, as eve every fear of Frieda’s is constantly reinforced for her. In this world it is true that no one really cares what happens to her, except Isabel, and it is true that worth is solely found in her appearance.

I would describe this book as being somewhere between Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. As the reader you are thrust into an unknown dystopian world reminiscent of Atwood’s novel, but the YA style and teenage protagonists feel closer to Collins’ trilogy. I would absolutely recommend this to anyone looking for a YA novel with overtly dark edge to it.