Book Review: Exit Management

exit management

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.


Book Review: Sealed

“I’d felt it too, the too-muchness of being in love. But I hated Pete for it at the same time. I hated his freedom and how guiltlessly he lived, how easily he took love and gave love, and how much danger he’d put me in. And most of all, I hated that he might be right, that he was living the right way and that I was wrong: too frightened, too careful, too guarded to really enjoy life.”

Sealed, by Naomi Booth, is set in a near future Australia. Rising temperatures have brought with them storms and deadly heat events. Wild fires, pollution and other environmental catastrophes make day to day living uncomfortable for all.

Alice and her partner, Pete, are expecting their first child. With less than a month to go before the baby is due they leave the city, its toxic air and growing climate of fear. They move from their cramped apartment to a remote house overlooking the Blue Mountains. It is planned as a fresh start in cleaner air, somewhere to establish their little family.

Alice has recently lost her mother. She lives in fear of a new condition known as cutis which causes skin to grow where it should not. People have died and Alice suspects a cover-up as few cases are being reported. Pete believes she is looking for problems that do not exist.

The government is trying to manage the growing threats from all quarters by moving its poorer citizens into camps where they may be cared for, monitored and controlled. As part of her job in the city housing department, Alice had visited one such camp during its regular inspection. Privately run, it ensured records of residents’ health and behaviour reflected only good practice. Detailed causes of death were not disclosed, the manager citing reasons of patient confidentiality.

Pete is excited at the prospect of fatherhood. He becomes frustrated when Alice fixates on what he regards as imaginary threats and conspiracies. Eager to fit in he befriend locals. They question why he has taken Alice from the city to a place such as this but will not explain to her what they mean. They regard Alice as a killjoy as they try to make the best of a situation they cannot change. Pete dismisses Alice’s concerns as the irrational behaviour she agreed to leave behind. She mingles with their new acquaintances but cannot put aside her fears.

“She gasps with laughter and I can’t help it, it’s totally contagious, I’m not even stoned and I start to laugh a bit too. She squeezes my hand again. This is how I used to make friends, when I didn’t see every person and every place as a contagion to be guarded against.”

With Alice’s due date approaching she tries to register for medical care but what little exists is already overwhelmed. Alice tells Pete she believes she spotted a case of cutis. He does not wish to face such a possibility.

The tension in the story builds as Alice and Pete’s backgrounds are revealed. The reader cannot be sure if her paranoia is justified, if there is any point in fighting back given the wider situation. The climax is reached when Alice goes into labour. The denouement is horrifying yet somehow inevitable.

As with the best dystopian fiction this is a parable for today. The reader fears what is being gradually revealed yet cannot look away. Government reactions are all too believable.

A tale that I flew through and shuddered at the possibilities presented. By the end both Alice and Pete’s behaviours are better understood, the outcome as complex as the circumstances all had to deal with. As grotesque as the premise may be, this is a compelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink.