A well-known hypothesis states that if a million young novelists at a million typewriters were to write a million first novels about the disaffected female millennial experience, they would each in turn be proclaimed ‘the next Sally Rooney’. The debut novel of Naoise Dolan, currently the next Sally Rooney, even comes with an endorsement from the previous Sally Rooney, who published an excerpt from Exciting Times as a short story in The Stinging Fly magazine, of which she was the editor in 2018.
Short story long, Exciting Times plays limited variations on familiar Rooney tunes. Twenty-two and spiritually adrift, Ava arrives in Hong Kong to teach English to the children of wealthy natives. Morally compromised by her new-found status as capitalist lackey and menaced by the culturally imperialist overtones of her work, Ava only diversifies her portfolio of troubles when she falls into a liaison with Julian. Julian is a self-possessed and stern banker who, having been educated at Eton and Balliol, is also an emotionally damaged commitment-phobe and a pretentious amoralist. He is part of the island’s rather spiritless Oxbridge expat elite, which has floated over from Oxford’s dreaming spires into Hong Kong’s spires of glass and greed without touching ground in between.