"I did not want to have a job," the protagonist of "Green Dot" declares.

Hera Stephen, the twentysomething narrator of Madeleine Gray's debut, is a newly hired community moderator at a Sydney newspaper, a job to which she brings multiple arts degrees and acidic wit.

Forced to make internal calculations such as "Coffee: good. Money: none," she reluctantly accepts her post. Hera's thoughts on labor — specifically, the plastic quality of workplace communication — are biting and funny. Gray commands the same authority when she conveys Hera's deep affection for her father; the warmth of their banter is a great comfort on the page. And Hera's chemistry with Arthur Jones, the married colleague with whom she has an affair, develops swiftly and convincingly, each exchange between them filled with longing.

Hera is quick to stave off predictable responses — from loyal friends Soph and Sarah, as well as from the reader — by acknowledging her folly.

"For not one moment of this relationship was I unaware of what every single popular culture representation of such an arrangement portended my fate to be," she says.

Gray gives Hera this sentence on the opening page — not as a disclaimer, but as an adamant refusal to heed warnings. Perceptive and hilarious, Hera charges ahead, fully aware of the trope into which she has stumbled. Gray's prose circumvents any hint of banality; the language is too raw, too funny, too simultaneously irreverent and vulnerable.

When Hera decides to leave Sydney for the UK, she hopes her absence will encourage Arthur to leave his wife, Kate. She explains that "it is only barely possible to live in a new city when the person you love is still online" with "his little green dot staring at you like an eye you can't see yourself reflected in."

By the time she returns to Sydney, circumstances are even more complicated, not only by the pandemic but by Kate's pregnancy. Hera imposes a deadline — Arthur must confess to his wife by the end of the year — and this fuels the suspense and urgency that Gray first established by building the chemistry between Arthur and Hera.

Gray hints that things will not go well — Hera sees her estranged mother on the street, her childhood dog dies, she is humiliated at a dinner party. But, as the deadline nears and Hera commits increasingly risky transgressions, her fate remains unpredictable and thrillingly full of possibilities, however unlikely most of them are.

Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in the Washington Post, One Story, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Green Dot

By: Madeleine Gray.

Publisher: Henry Holt, 304 pages, $27.99.