Exit Management, by Naomi Booth, is an expertly paced thriller that cuts to the bone. Set in London during the run up to Brexit, it focuses on a young couple intricately linked to the overpriced property market. The tension builds as they each get what they thought they wanted but at a terrible cost.
When the story opens, Lauren is living in a cheaply built studio apartment in Deptford. She moved to London five years ago, recruited at a graduate fair in Bristol by Mina, to work in HR at a financial services company. Lauren has become expert in making problematic traders redundant, ensuring that the process of their eradication from the company goes smoothly without unsettling repercussions. She aspires to be like the always immaculately groomed Mina, who took her new recruit under her wing and now advises on all aspects of her life and ambitions. Lauren budgets carefully, putting money aside each month for a deposit on her own property. For now, the flats she could afford are far from the image she has of what she deserves as her future home.
Callum still lives with his parents in a high rise flat in Croyden. It has been their home for thirty years. He works as a Curator for GuestHouse, a company that offers short term lets on luxury properties for the super-rich visiting the city. Only good looking, well groomed young men are recruited to this role. They are provided with a quality suit and trained in how to talk to the clients they will deal with. Mostly, they check on their lists of empty properties, purchased as investments, ensuring they are kept pristine and secure. Cleaning companies do the basic work before and after any occupation, but Callum must ensure requested supplies are provided and nothing is disturbed, stolen or damaged by paying guests.
Lauren and Callum bump into each other outside a beautiful property near Little Venice. It is owned by József, a Hungarian born art dealer who is in the late stages of multiple sclerosis. While József seeks treatment, his house has been placed on Callum’s list. It is his favourite property as the two men have become friends in the time they have known each other. József welcomes the younger man’s company, telling him stories from his past and educating him in art. When Lauren and Callum first meet, Lauren assumes the house belongs to Callum and immediately sets her sights on him.
What follows could be Shakespearian but with much heightened tension. Neither Callum nor Lauren wish to reveal where they really come from. Both desire the other but for different reasons. When József returns to his home with an offer for Callum, Lauren must be told the truth. The consequences of this revelation threaten to destroy them all.
The key players have back stories that go some way towards explaining why they behave as they do.
Lauren was born and raised in Dewsbury where she lived poorly and was regularly abused. She has tried to help her family there but resents what she regards as their continual neediness. She deals with her demons through coping strategies that focus on her carefully managed facade and future, learning to take care of herself because nobody else can be relied upon to do so. She worries about her little sister, Amy, but is also angry that the girl won’t help herself.
“Because hasn’t she tried? Hasn’t she tried for long enough to look after Amy? To protect her? At cost. At great fucking personal cost. Enough, enough already. Years of trying to keep her safe, and now look: she can’t take care of herself at the most basic level.”
Callum’s mother suffers from anxiety. His father believes the boy should be independent at his age. He is disappointed that a stint at university lasted barely a month. He reminds his son that his grandfather had to fend for himself from the age of fourteen.
“Cal’s problem is that he’s always been a bit on the useless side. He smokes his smokes, he plays his video games, he sleeps, he eats, he does this little job, hoovering the carpets of the rich and famous, whatever it is. Pretty boy, isn’t he? He’s anxious, you know that. He gets it from you … Snowflakes, that’s what they call them, isn’t it? This lot? Too frightened to go out into the world and make anything of themselves.”
Callum and Lauren’s unravelling is masterfully dealt with and kept within character. The denouement, while poignant, remains devoid of saccharine.
A skilfully woven, contemporary tale that lays bare the lie that hard work and focus will bring all rewards deserved. Although dark and at times bleak, this is an immersive and satisfying read.
Exit Management is published by dead ink.