Twenty-two year-old Ava is a cash-strapped English teacher from Ireland living with roommates who pay less attention to her than the cockroaches in their Hong Kong Airbnb. When Ava meets Julian, a twenty-eight year-old Oxford-educated English banker, her life changes in ways she never imagined. Julian is conservative with expressing his feelings, yet offers his guest room to Ava for free. The two become unlikely friends—and later romantic partners—unlikely not because of their socio-economic disparities, but because they don’t seem to like one another very much.
Although Julian refuses to commit to a relationship, he sometimes includes Ava when he goes out with his banker friends, many of whom, like Julian, were at Eton and Oxford. She tries to feel confident around the banker friends, but they are often uncouth when Ava is within earshot, mocking her Dublin accent and her modest upbringing.
Dolan’s portrayal of people in their twenties is pretty spot-on. There’s so much uncertainty and pressure to be adults when they still haven’t had many life experiences and there’s so much yet to figure out, which is about as much explanation as one will get as to why Ava stays with Julian when he’s so emotionally unavailable.
When the bank sends Julian to London for a few months, he gives Ava little notice of his departure, but expects she will continue living there. He only asks that she visit his father, a professor at the University of Hong Kong living on his own. Ava wonders to herself if Julian moved to Hong Kong to be closer to his father or if Julian arrived first and Miles, his father, followed him there. In any case, Ava and Miles share the same left-wing politics and get along better than they each do with Julian.
Julian’s time in London changes from three months to six. While he’s gone, Ava meets a twenty-two year-old lawyer named Edith. The two go to the theater, which is followed by other theater and cinema outings, coffee and shopping, and one thing leads to another. This love triangle takes some twists and turns, especially after Julian returns.
Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times takes place in Hong Kong but, unlike many novels set there, Hong Kong is not its raison d’etre, simply the setting.
Edith is Chinese, equally comfortable in an English-speaking setting as she is in a Cantonese or Mandarin one, but with a mother from Singapore and a father from Hunan who settled in Hong Kong a few years before the Handover, and having attended school and university in Britain, she also feels like an outsider.
During the early days of their relationship, Ava becomes particularly interested in Edith’s views on class, something that has done Ava no favors among the British expat crowd in Hong Kong:
I was unsurprised when she said her parents worked in finance. In the interval of the second play, I said something in passing about posh English people, and Edith said the concept of poshness didn’t exist in Hong Kong. It was like Ireland: all money was new money. Rich was posh and posh was rich. Given that I was neither, I wasn’t sure why I found that comforting, but I did. There wasn’t even an upper-class accent, Edith said, although mainland Cantonese was regarded by ‘some’ as sounding nicer.
Exciting Times is a sad, yet hopeful coming of age story set in a Hong Kong immediately recognizable to the many expats like Julian, Ava and globalized locals like Edith who end up there. Omnipresent yet subtle, Hong Kong doesn’t overshadow the characters and their struggles in trying to figure out life.