“I thought that if i let anyone in, they’d find out what was broken about me. And then not only would they know, I’d know too.”
Ava is a twenty-two year-old ex pat from Dublin, living in Hong Kong in a grubby Airbnb and teaching English as a Foreign Language to eight year olds in a school that does not allow her to urinate between classes.
She is self-deprecating, caustic and witty. She, in her own opinion “wasn’t good at most things but I was good at men”.
If you don’t get on with Ava, you won’t get on with this book: there is nothing in it save for Ava. Ava’s voice, Ava’s life, Ava’s thoughts. Ava’s body. There is little in the way of plot or tension or conflict outside of that: she falls into a relationship of sorts with the English banker Julian; when he is back in England for a period of months, she falls into a relationship with Edith Zhang Mei Ling. Despite both Julian and Edith finding out about each other, both are generally grown up and decent about the situation.
And the good news is that I loved Ava!
I loved her ruminations on sex, gender, class and politics – she was so sharp and on point, even as she told us how bad she was.
Dolan’s writing is, in fact, an absolute treasure trove of aphorisms. I adored the school sections of the novel – possibly because as an English teacher with a reputation of a grammar expert, comments like
Because I lacked warmth, I was mainly assigned grammar classes, where children not liking you was a positive performance indicator. I found this an invigorating respite from how people usually assessed women.
are wonderfully reassuring! But look at the pointedness of that final sentence, slipped in gently with a dry humour but a deeply barbed suckerpunch nonetheless. A blistering comment about the pressures put on young women to be likeable.
Once again, having already explained to the nine-year olds “that there were two ways to say the ‘th’ sound” – which, as a Dubliner, “I had gone twenty-two years without knowingly pronouncing either phoneme” – Ava goes on and comments that
‘Tings’ was incorrect, you needed to breathe and say ‘things’, but if you breathed for ‘what’ then that was quaint. If the Irish didn’t aspirate and the English did then they were right, but if we did and the English didn’t then they were still right. The English taught us English to teach us they were right.
I found her relationship with Julian interesting though ultimately I was not sure I got it. He is “the richest man I’d ever been good at” and Ava’s opposite in every way: a public school Oxford educated banker with every privilege and opportunity; in contrast, Ava is working class comprehensive school. They had met and started having sex whilst Ava was in the airbnb, unable to afford to move; she moves into his luxurious apartment in the next chapter.
Dolan is playing with a lot of big power dynamics here – the class division between Julian and Ava, the gender divide. The ‘kept woman’ trope. Who is taking advantage of whom in that relationship? And Ava asks that explicitly
Staying in his flat was possibly a rupture from the capitalist notion that I was only worth something if I paid my own way economically. Or maybe it made me a bad feminist. I could puzzle it out once the experience had passed. There wasn’t much point in dwelling on it until then. What if I decided I didn’t like staying with him? I’d have to do something else, and I mightn’t like any of the alternatives any better.
There is affection and tenderness between them and Julian take Ava to socialise with his friends, to meet his father, Miles. He likes to buy her gifts. And there is a lot of sex between them, but none of it felt like an exchange or that it was expected because of her living with him. And neither character views the other as boyfriend or girlfriend. And yet their relationship is more tender than the term “friends with benefits” implies. I did wonder whether Julian’s refusal to commit was genuine or not – when asked ‘Do you love me?’ his reply is
‘I like you a great deal,’ he said. ‘Now go to sleep.’
Which is quite brutal. Brutal enough to “murder” Ava’s fantasy about being in love with him.
Because love requires vulnerability, and it is only in the second half of the book, her relationship with Edith, that Ava lets herself become that vulnerable.
I did love the growth of their relationship from awkward first encounter – tickets to the theatre that Edith had given to Victoria (a friend of Julian’s) and Victoria had passed to Ava – to fascination, attraction and a lot of online stalking as their meetings become less of a public event and increasingly intimate, from theatres to coffee shops to Julian’s flat.
Dolan’s use of social media was – like everything else – pinpoint sharp. When Ava was checking Edith’s Instagram, she noted that
Edith’s name was always near the top of my story viewers. In vain I consulted articles and subreddits to see whether this meant she stalked me, I stalked her, or both.
And Edith’s dual accounts – one personal and one for her art – and the politics of how quickly messages are typed and replied to, whether to draft into messages (and be observed by the other person typing) or to draft in a notes app and copy-and-paste. And very potently the power of the unsent draft. Ava drafts messages to Julian about Edith, and later to Edith about her feelings, and doesn’t send them. Her later messages build on the earlier unsent messages, sent less to the ‘real’ characters but to the versions of them that may have received the first messages. It was almost a Schrodinger’s cat situation: can a message be both sent and not sent at the same time?
There were some things that I’d have liked in the book which were missing – primarily Hong Kong. For such a potent cultural and colonial and post-colonial setting, struggling with its identity, the presentation of it felt a little cursory. It felt, to be honest, a little like Hong Kong in name only and could have been almost anywhere. This perhaps says more about Ava than Dolan, of course – and Ava fled Dublin because “I’d been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin’s fault, and thought Hong Kong would help” so has a strange relationship with place – but a little more texture of the place would have helped, rather than the occasional nods to the politics and weather.
The comparisons with Sally Rooney are obvious: like Rooney we have razor sharp wit, interesting and developed characters and pithy astute language use.
And both are longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And it is a strange thing with this year’s longlist: at least three of the books – Exciting Times, Luster by Raven Leilani and Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters – seem to explore similar relationship dynamics. Threesome feels too fetishistic but there is an overlap between the relationships with Julian and Edith here – I am so glad that Julian’s response to finding out about Edith was nowhere near the “Can I watch?” cliche; Luster explores Edie’s relationship with the married Eric whose marriage is open; and Peters – whom I have only just begun to read – explores a family dynamic between Ames a detranstioned man, his cis girlfriend Katrina who is carrying his baby and his ex-girlfriend Reece.
So far, with less than a fortnight to the shortlist being announced, this novel and Summer are probably my favourites.
Plot / Pace:
Page Count: 288
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Date: 16th April 2020