Fresh Blood

Name: Naomi Booth

Title of Book: Exit Management

'...a chillingly accurate portrait of all the worst excesses of British society pre-Covid...'

Lauren is in Exit Management. She has to deal with City traders who have gone off the rails, getting them to sign redundancy packages and go quietly – not an easy thing when so much money is at stake. It is a job that requires nerves of steel and an icy detachment. Despite the high-octane nature of her work, it doesn’t pay her well enough to afford the most basic, decent place to live. But she dreams. She visits properties for sale in Maida Vale/Portobello Road, carved up little rooms that look like ‘scenes for a sex murder’ marketed as ‘prestige addresses’. Wandering around the area, Lauren finds herself in the sort of place she wants be living in, beautiful Elgin Mews. Mesmerised, she walks straight into Cal, a young man in a line of business not dissimilar to hers.

Curators GuestHouses is like an upmarket version of Air BNB, renting out luxury properties to hedge funders and oligarchs. The Elgin Mews house Cal has just stepped out of actually belongs to elderly Hungarian émigré, József, who rents it out periodically to pay for treatment for Multiple Sclerosis. Cal has grown very close to the elderly artist and loves listening to his stories. But his collision with Lauren sparks a chain of events that will turn József’s house into a battleground and a stage set for murder.

‘Exit Management’ draws a chillingly accurate portrait of all the worst excesses of British society pre-Covid, at the point when the news seemed to revolve solely around Brexit. Each of the three leading characters illustrate the conflict at the heart of the referendum and its decision, exemplified by the desirable house in Maida Vale that sits beneath the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower. Naomi Booth writes each of them beautifully, slowly peeling back the layers of their lives.

Lauren’s ability to switch into an ice queen – along with her obsession with hygiene – comes from her upbringing in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury, a place riven by all the inequality, poverty and racial tension that marked out the Brexit battleground. With a mother who behaves more than a child herself, Lauren and her sister Amy were left at the mercy of an abusive father. Lauren worked herself up to her current position through sheer determination and a Svengali, Mina, who schooled her in the dark arts of getting ahead and influencing people. Mina sees Cal and the house Lauren believes he owns as a fantastic business opportunity. Smitten with Lauren, Cal betrays the old man he has come to love as much as his own family. Between the machinations of these star-crossed lovers is told the story of József’s journey from war-torn Budapest to peace in Maida Vale. Though at times shockingly brutal, the tenderness the old man bequeaths to Cal is all the humanity that Lauren’s life has lacked so far. What the author seems to be asking with her darkly enchanting fable is whether any of life is worth living without the true riches of such empathy? A thought-provoking and astounding debut.

Reviewed by: C.U.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What really struck me about this book was how accurate a portrait it drew of all the worst excesses of our society pre-Covid. The yawning chasm between the have’s and have not’s is the focus of your story, so was Brexit – and the two different Britains represented by each side of the argument for or against it – the starting point for you?
I wrote the first draft of the novel a couple of years before the EU referendum, but I think the heart of the story is in those tensions that created the situation where Brexit feels inevitable. The novel was always called ‘Exit Management’ and this title allowed me to explore different kinds of exit (Lauren works in HR for a City finance company and manages the “exits” of errant traders; Callum is caring for József, a man who is gravely ill). The language of exiting, the idea of producing a “clean” exit, of being (un)able to control certain kinds of exit, became even more loaded in light of Brexit.

The main characters are driven by different things: Lauren grew up in a deprived part of West Yorkshire and is fiercely and ruthlessly ambitious; Callum grew up in a close family in Croydon and struggles with anxiety and finding a way to survive the gig economy; József, an elderly Hungarian émigré who was born in war-torn Budapest, is in many ways the most optimistic and also the most vulnerable of the novel’s characters. I think each character is affected in different ways by the conjunction of things that contributed to Brexit - patterns of poverty, exploitative working conditions, sexual violence, xenophobia and racism, and a vicious blame culture stoked by vested interests. There are multiple versions of “Britain” at play in the novel and a fractured socio-political landscape that makes questions of solidarity and care vexed and complex.
2) I’m very interested in how you created three very distinct and believable lead characters. Young lovers Lauren and Cal both live on the very edges of London – in Deptford and Croydon respectively – while working in businesses that service all the oligarchs and financial traders whose presence in the City have served to push them out. How much research did you have to do into their respective professions?
I was fascinated by their professions: they both do the dirty work in different ways. Lauren gets rid of people from high-powered jobs and services the corporation she works for; but she’s also enacting a sort of personal vengeance on the big beasts of finance. I have some familiarity with HR procedures: I worked for a while as an editor of legal books, including HR law books, and I was always fascinated by the dark vocabulary of corporate euphemism - “exit management” and “offboarding” and “garden leave” and “simplification services’”. Cal’s job is looking after vacant luxury properties, and the needs of the wealthy owners and clients who stay in them. For his job, I researched a number of ways that properties in London and elsewhere are now being made available for short-term lets, but his relationship with his clients is based on my speculation. I’m interested in the “behind the scenes” moments of the staging of luxury.
3) Lauren’s job requires nerves of steel and an icy detachment and we discover how she developed these qualities when we meet her family in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury – a place riven by inequality, poverty and racial tension that marks out the Brexit battleground. How difficult was it for you to tackle the subject of horrendous child abuse and neglect that forged her character and do it so carefully and sympathetically? Is Dewsbury a place you know well?
I grew up in Dewsbury, which makes it simultaneously easier and harder to write about as a place. One of the things that I tried to do with this novel is to explore disavowal: Lauren is a character who attempts to repress the things that have happened to her, things that we might think of as abuse – she wants to erase the past in order to move ever upwards. She wants to be “pristine” in the way that she views other upwardly mobile women. I wanted to experiment narratively with how to present that: it’s a challenge to be close to a character’s thoughts and to show the reader what they’re actively trying not to think about. At first I tried to show the way she’s attempting to block out certain experiences of violence and loss through strike-throughs, to attempt to show on the page the ways in which you might simultaneously be conscious of something and denying it. That didn’t really work, so I’ve tried other methods of recurrent images and fragmented prose to create the complexities of her thinking and feeling about her past.
4) Lauren bumps into Cal – literally – while searching for somewhere to live in the Maida Vale/Portobello Road area of London. The shadow of Grenfell Tower falls across these streets and this story – was this what drew you to set the scene in this polarised landscape?
Yes, this area is so densely multivalent to me, as a London outsider. I first glimpsed Grenfell Tower after the fire down a street on which three Range Rovers were parked in a row: that big green heart was flanked by houses that seemed to me to represent unimaginable security and privilege. This area seems to me to be an especially intense example of the kind of cheek-by-jowl experience of economic and cultural difference that London produces –something I’ve never experienced in quite the same way anywhere else. Gentrification is also an important part of this story: an area like Maida Vale has changed dramatically over the last few decades, and I’m fascinated by the ghostly traces that might remain when an area changes.
5) Cal’s profession also feeds on the lust for desirable property and power but he doesn’t seem to buy into its ethos. He has a very good relationship with József. The stories József tells Cal about his early life in Budapest during the War are harrowing but delivered with such style and verisimilitude – was this also the product of thorough research or are you close to a real life József?
There is no real-life József, but I researched his storyline by reading as much as I could about the recent history of Hungary, in particular the work of Sándor Márai. Márai was an exiled Hungarian novelist and critic, and I read some of his novels and his fascinating ‘Memoir of Hungary, 1944-48’ (translated by Albert Tezla). One of the things that Márai writes about so brilliantly, and that I wanted to explore through József, is the experience of living through major upheaval and change – living in Budapest, a city where Nazi fascism was literally battling with Soviet Communism, and then being exiled into the capitalist West. Márai thinks deeply about different forms of political organisation, and not in an arid, distanced way: he lived through them and they’re integral for him to the act of writing novels. I’m a child of 1980s northern England: I’ve only ever lived through different versions of Thatcherism (I’m including Blairism as a direct descendent), and I’m sometimes guilty of a particular kind of malaise that comes from that. I wanted there to be a direct engagement in the novel with different histories of political acquiescence and upheaval and struggle.
6) József’s house becomes the battleground of this story and it is a war that, despite lives being lost for it, nobody is going to win. Although it paints a dark picture, your book is not completely devoid of hope. What is the main thing you wanted readers to take away from it and think about?
I always think a lot about how to end books – about the right balance between catharsis and irresolution and hope and difficulty. I think that the act of writing is inherently a hopeful one. I suppose I’d like readers to think about the different ideas of the past that are in play here, and about how the future is still open: that we have the power to write our futures differently without attempting to disavow the past.
7) Since I got the proof of your book in March, the world has completely changed. How has the Lockdown and everything that went with it affected you as a writer? Are you still able to create?
I’m slowly beginning to be able to write again. I was initially poleaxed, like many people, by the combination of working at home whilst looking after a small child – and by the deep anxiety produced by watching things around us unfold. I learned two new words in lockdown that felt really apt for my state of mind: “subfusc” (meaning gloomy, from Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’), and “stuplimity” (a word critic Sianne Ngai’s coins to describe a simultaneous sense of shock and passivity, overwhelm and numbness, that internet newsfeeds can create). During the gloomy overwhelmed days, I tried to keep writing in small snatches – taking notice of things, making notes for myself in a diary – and I’ve now returned to reading and writing short stories, which was my first love as a writer.
8) With your experience as a writer, what advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
A first draft is a warm-up. I know it can be hard to accept this when novels take so bloody long to write and most us have to write in such desperate brief snatches of time. But: rest your first draft when you’ve finished it, read as much as you can in the meantime, and then come back to it ready to re-write.
9) Are you a fan of crime fiction? If so, which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
Yes: I devoured Ruth Rendell’s novels when I was growing up, and lots of my favourite books inhabit the shadowy borders of the crime genre. My three crime(ish) novels would probably be Patricia Highsmith – ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’; Gordon Burn – ‘Alma Cogan’; and something from the David Peace ‘Red Riding Quartet’ - though I think I’d be completely terrified on this desert island.