It comes as no surprise to learn that there was a seven-way publishing bidding war for this, Naoise Dolan's debut novel - so piercing is the writing, so astute the observations of people, relationships, class and colonialism. The fascinating protagonist, Ava, a young woman from a "small house" in Dublin, is a TEFL teacher in present-day Hong Kong, who slowly begins a relationship of sorts with Julian, a successful English banker.
Ava chronicles and dissects their odd relationship and its every interaction in sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart-breaking detail. Their strange status quo is disrupted by the entrance of the beautiful, exuberant Edith, a wealthy Chinese lawyer and Cambridge graduate, while Julian is on a lengthy work trip to London. Ava's dilemma becomes how to manage the burgeoning love triangle upon Julian's return.
Dolan paints a pin-sharp picture of the life of international immigrants - or ex-pats as they like to call themselves - in bustling Hong Kong. We're introduced to an array of characters - Ava's teaching colleagues, her family back home, Julian's upper-crust associates - each one so vividly drawn that in a matter of a few words, we have their measure.
"…Ralph, pronounced 'Rafe', who'd gone to Balliol with Julian, now worked at his bank, and had an alleged flotilla of Hibernian great-grandparents. (Two, he expanded. One great-grand-parent on each side, which meant Éire owed him a whole grandparent, morally.) He'd voted for Brexit to have tighter borders, and was applying for an Irish passport to avoid being stopped at them."
The odious Victoria comes in for some of Ava's more exacting examination. "Periodically, she touched her Celine trapeze bag. I thought: it's still there, Victoria. It's not going anywhere. The cow's dead."
Ava is witty, acerbic and fiercely intelligent but also loving and, despite what she might think herself, lovable. Her keen observations of the people around her and their motivations (as well as her own) make her a most interesting literary heroine.
Her frank conversations with Julian, her post-mortems of same and her internal dialogue, along with the litany of unsent but nonetheless heartfelt messages to Edith, show her to be a person of enormous emotional and intellectual depth.
"'Julian,' I said, 'what are we?' 'F**ked if I know.' 'F**ked anyway.' 'Your zest for life is infectious.' 'Just as well you're immune.' We were doing what he and Miles did - acting out scenes.
"He did this with everyone: extemporised until he'd decided his dynamic with them, then held onto it for dear life. 'Do you love me?' I said. What he said next didn't hurt me. It was exactly what I'd been looking for to murder the outgrowth. 'I like you a great deal,' he said. 'Now go to sleep.'"
Honesty, sometimes painfully, pours forth from Ava and drips from every page of this book. I rarely find myself rooting for a character as much as I did for this young woman.
This is a whip-smart, funny and poignant story of modern love, accessible to all. It should be on everyone's 2020 must-read list.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson