Tag Archives: irish lit

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

I finally ticked the last book off my March TBR, with a little help from Gil @ Gil Reads Books, who kindly volunteered to buddy read it with me! (I’ve linked her review, be sure to check it out!) John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a nearly 600-page LGBTQ+ historical fiction novel that reads quickly for its size and has received a lot of love since its 2017 release. Though it didn’t quite live up to the massive hype for me, Gil and I were largely in agreement about this one, and I had a good time reading and discussing it despite a few disappointments.

theheart'sinvisiblefuriesIn the novel, Cyril Avery narrates 70 years of his life, beginning with his mother’s eventful pregnancy and ending with the ghost of a friend telling him the (fast-approaching) date of Cyril’s own death. In between, the reader is given an overview of the challenges faced by gay men in Ireland from the 1940’s onward. The prevalence of strict Catholocism and the illegality of homosexuality in Ireland through much of the 1900s made life very difficult for a lot of people who, like Cyril, were forced to hide their true identities, create elaborate cover-ups, and/or leave Ireland altogether in order to simply exist as themselves.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contradictory to my nature.”

I’ll start on a positive: I think Boyne does a great job of conveying how oppressively unfair the social, political, and Catholic response to homosexuality and AIDS was in Ireland (and beyond, to some extent) until very recently. Politicians outed as homosexual would lose their careers. Men who confessed to doctors their shame and unhappiness over their sexual preferences were given cruel and ineffective “treatments.” Children were convinced by authority figures from a young age that the roads to Hell are many and being a homosexual is one of the most certain paths. Being gay in this place, in this time, led to arrest, loss of respect and even recognition from friends and family, direct verbal and physical violence from utter strangers, and more. Cyril’s introductions to sexuality are secretive after-hours public encounters that leave him feeling guilty and far from love. The Heart’s Invisible Furies gave me a good sense of the difficulties faced on every side, and the political/religious atmosphere of the country in these years that led to such intolerant reactions.

” ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’ / ‘No,’ I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. ‘No, I dont think we do.’ “

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the book’s potential positives were undermined for me by the sheer absurdity of the narration. I think my mention above about Cyril narrating his mother’s pregnancy and communing with ghosts is a good indicator of how very whimsical Boyne’s narrative choices are here. Though on their own none of the plot details would seem quite so far-fetched, all together it makes for a particularly comedic journey. I can’t deny that it was fun to read and guess which outlandish plot twist was coming up next (I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card, sadly), but I had so much difficulty suspending disbelief that I could barely take any of the plot seriously. There’s a ton of ground being covered here, and I hate to bash this book because I do think it’s a decent (fictionalized) source of information for those who haven’t lived the experience; but perhaps its greatest fault is that it tries to encompass too much of the gay Irish experience within one man, and thus loses what strength it could have had in characterization. This might have been a very different experience if I had been better able to emotionally invest in Cyril’s saga of suffering.

As it is, I’ve heard of many of the horrors this book contains prior to reading it (the clandestine exchanges in parks after dark, the loveless marriages, the medical treatments, the prejudice). Shocking reveals were never going to win me over the way heartfelt characterization might have, and I found that lacking. The children don’t sound like children, the seven year time gaps between every chapter feel forced and make new character introductions belated and awkward, and relationships between them are difficult to understand without being explicitly told. Character reunions and deaths feel manipulative, exacerbated by the fact that each person in this story is so one-note that they read more like caricatures with a single personality trait each than actual people. Even the dialogue is presented very literally, lest the reader miss the point:

” ‘I just know that if she goes to America she’ll end up being raped by a black man and having an abortion.’ / ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, spitting out my tea. ‘For God’s sake, Anna, you can’t say things like that.’ / ‘Why not? It’s true.’ / ‘It’s not true at all. And you sound very small-minded saying it.’ / ‘I’m not racist if that’s what you’re implying. Remember, my husband is Jewish.’ “

And yet, despite all the complaints I’ve lodged, I can’t deny that most of the read was engaging and entertaining, even if not in the way I expected or hoped for. I had a better time than with my last Boyne novel- A Ladder to the Sky. All in all, a mixed experience, though the fact that I seem to be in the minority with my complaints means I’d still readily recommend this book to anyone looking for a humorous, dramatic account of an important social issue.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This would probably have been a lower rating if I hadn’t enjoyed laughing my way through the most unrealistic of the plot points, and dissecting them all with Gil. Without a buddy I think I would have been even more frustrated than I was. I suspect I’m just not the right reader for Boyne’s style, though there’s enough to appreciate in his work that I’m not counting out trying more of his work in the future. I just won’t be rushing to pick it up.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Milkman

I’ve been reading the Man Booker longlist this year, and had the good fortune to be reading Anna Burns’s Milkman when it was announced as the 2018 winner in mid-October. That was a fun experience that I was not entirely expecting. I still had one book left on the shortlist at that time in addition to half of Milkman, so I wasn’t even ready to make an informed guess about who the winner might be. Now that I’m ready to reflect… I’m so glad this book won.

milkmanAbout the book: Middle Sister prefers avoiding the troubled times she lives in by reading novels from centuries past– reading even while she’s walking, as a distraction from the present world. Unfortunately, the other members of her community do not see her reading-while-walking as a suitable form of self-defense, and as she becomes more difficult for them to understand she also becomes a target of their cruel gossip. Soon everyone is saying that Middle Sister is having an affair with Milkman, and so many are so vehemently on board that Middle Sister seems to have no choice left but to give in to Milkman’s demands. As she learns firsthand how hard it can be to make people listen rather than assume, she also discovers that some of her own assumptions have long been incorrect, and that she is just as much to blame for shutting out the truth as anyone else.

“I’d have lost power, such as was my power, if I’d tried to explain and to win over all those gossiping about me. So I’d kept silent, I said. I’d asked no questions, answered no questions, gave no confirmation, no refutation. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to maintain a border to keep my mind separate. That way, I’d said, I’d hoped to ground and protect myself.”

Before I talk more about the plot, I want to take a look at the unique writing style Burns uses in this novel because I think that will be the element that makes or breaks this novel for many readers.

The writing is full of placeholder names for places and people, nouns-turned-verbs, and objects that all but become their descriptions. The sentences run on and on in a manner very similar to (though not quite, in my opinion, actual) stream-of-consciousness narration. Paragraphs go on for pages, chapters seem never to end. I am usually a reader drawn to short paragraphs and short chapters myself, but something about the narrator’s voice in Milkman succeeded in pulling me in, and those long sentences made it nearly impossible to let the book go. “Just one more paragraph” turned into an excuse to read a few more pages, and enough was never enough. The ease of distinguishing characters by their relation to the narrator or other inherent characteristics seemed like a convenient way to get right to the meat of the story without bothering with all the fancy window dressing usually required to bring a fictional world to life. For all of Milkman’s long-windedness, it is not a novel stuffed with surplus. Names and world building are important, yes, but not so much in Milkman. Instead of dwelling on what other books set up as required background, it skips over what it doesn’t need to get right to the point.

“Some too, would make mention of the actual word ‘rumour’, as in ‘Rumour says’, before going on to personify rumour, as if it wasn’t they who were launching or perpetuation Rumour themselves.”

The point. Middle Sister’s affair (or not) with Milkman. The way her community forces her hand, though they’re still there to save her when she needs it. This is a book about community, about assumption, and about individual truths. The basics of the plot are given away in the first paragraph; the rest of the novel is spent examining how such a strange and horrible situation could occur, and the escalating sense of Middle Sister’s isolation even while (because) she seems to be the first topic on everybody’s mind. Burns may take the scenic route through this novel, but she never loses track of where she’s going, and the answers she provides is worth the time spent searching for them– but if you’re one of the lucky readers (like me) who can fall completely in love with Milkman‘s style, you’ll enjoy the journey to the answers just as much.

“I wasn’t sure anymore what was plausible, what was exaggeration, what might be reality or delusion or paranoia.”

Let’s not overlook the other characters. Burns does a fantastic job of bringing in each player’s story at just the right time, referencing it ahead of time to pique the reader’s interest, but only giving the details when the scaffolding of the main story is ready for that extra layer. When I think a book is well-written, I often say the writer exercises a great command of language. In this case, though Burns certainly knows her way around words, what she has most command of here is the bundle of threads that make up the main plot, divided into individual strands of smaller character arcs. She weaves the characters in and out of Middle Sister’s story without ever seeming to lose track of any of the filaments that bind them all. I will remember Tablets Girl and Nuclear Boy and Real Milkman and First Brother-in-Law for a long time, to list a few.

And if you are one of the lucky readers who completely jives with Burns’s writing style, there’s the humor to appreciate, too. Most of the themes and morals of this book are ominous and serious, reflecting on the poor ways humans treat one another, especially as part of a larger group. But even so, Burns has an ironic sense of humor that goes to the heart of what people understand but don’t say, and it invariably lightens the mood. This line was my favorite:

“She admonished him, saying ‘I think I hate you,’ which meant she didn’t because ‘I think I hate you’ is the same as ‘probably I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t know if I hate you’, which is the same as ‘I don’t hate you, oh my God, my love, I love you, still love you, always, always have I loved you and never have I stopped loving you’. “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was immediately hooked in the first pages, but then I wavered for a while on whether or not the style was truly working for me. By 50 pages, I was hooked again, this time for good. The book worked for me, entirely. I cannot list a single flaw. I can, however, see myself rereading Milkman, and I’m certainly more interested in reading backlisted Booker Prize winners after enjoying this one as much as I did.

Other Man Booker reviews (in order of descending favoritism): Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ve also read The Overstory and Sabrina, and will have reviews for those up soon!

Have you read this year’s Man Booker winner? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant