Any author who chooses to set their story in Hong Kong must decide how to grapple with the city’s unique cultural make-up, and how much shifting tensions in society should be addressed. Exciting Times examines the phenomenon of young Westerners who come to Hong Kong to teach with few credentials other than their native fluency in English, though the mood of the period in which Naoise Dolan wrote and set the book—pre-pandemic and before 2019’s sweeping political demonstrations—contrasts with how the city feels today.
Exciting Times is the debut novel from 29-year-old Dolan, from Dublin, Ireland. Her own story, which she started writing in Hong Kong in 2017, mirrors that of the book’s lead character Ava in that she moved to Asia (first Singapore, then Hong Kong) to teach English and has first-hand experience of being a foreigner who must carve out a life for themselves in an environment in which they do not speak the native language. Ava, who moves to Hong Kong fresh out of university, falls into a casual relationship with a white, male banker, who offers her a lavish lifestyle in exchange for her company. When he is out of town, she develops feelings for a female Chinese lawyer.
Dolan has been praised for her naturalistic dialogue and incisive social commentary, and her character’s sardonic self-analysis that not only cuts to the heart of modern relationships but examines the notion of privilege and the distinct strata that exist within Hong Kong and among its foreign-born population. Her characters, like the wealthy, Eton- and Oxford-educated Julian and the high-flying Edith, and the dynamic between Julian’s coterie of rich, snobby and equally high-status friends, who look down on Ava as a learning centre teacher, will feel familiar to foreigners who live, work and spend most of their lives living in what is termed the “expat bubble”.
As a young Irish female author, comparisons to Sally Rooney, writer behind the smash-hit Normal People, were inevitable, and Rooney herself has endorsed Exciting Times. But Dolan’s dry writing style feels distinctive, and she conveys the introspection, existentialism and dating power-play that will feel familiar to many millennials. Ava’s relationships carry the story, but Dolan’s writing acknowledges her character’s anxiety surrounding her place in the world, not least as someone participating in a system that still benefits from Hong Kong’s complicated and exploitative colonial past.
However, at a time of great scrutiny towards Hong Kong, critics have said that Dolan, who lived in Hong Kong for less than two years, presents a surface-level and naive view of the city and its people, that most of the Asian characters in the story are treated as a source of stereotypical whimsy to Ava or background noise, and that racial and political tensions are trivialised in the narrative. Dolan previously admitted that Exciting Times is a “time capsule of a very different time and place”, and now adds: “I really can’t imagine the story unfolding the same way in present-day Hong Kong.”
In a Q&A ahead of her appearance at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival this Friday, Dolan discusses Exciting Times’ upcoming TV series adaptation by Amazon Studios and why she chose to set her story in Hong Kong.
Congratulations on the upcoming series adaptation! What do you think Phoebe Dynevor will bring to the role?
I’m really delighted that we’ve attached Phoebe to the project. Bringing a character to life is a collaborative process so I’m not coming to it with many preconceptions. When I met Phoebe she spoke beautifully and perceptively about the novel and the character, so I’m excited to see how her grasp of the material informs her performance rather than having a fixed image of how it will go.
Will the series be filmed in Hong Kong?
I can’t talk too much about the adaptation yet, but I can’t wait to be able to share more in time.