thu 24/09/2020

Naomi Booth: Exit Management review - unwrapping life's unpleasantness | reviews, news & interviews

Naomi Booth: Exit Management review - unwrapping life's unpleasantness

Naomi Booth: Exit Management review - unwrapping life's unpleasantness

This experimental novel builds fraught atmospheres of pretence, crisis and hope

Writer and academic Naomi Booth, whose eco-horror themed debut, Sealed, was shortlisted for Not the Booker Award 2018Courtesy of Dead Ink Books

When you try to get rid of something, it comes back to bite you – so says Naomi Booth in her new novel Exit Management. It’s one of those books that you want to read very quickly, its writing slickly modern and its characters compellingly flawed. Lauren is a graduate HR employee specialising in the tricky task of making people redundant.

When you try to get rid of something, it comes back to bite you – so says Naomi Booth in her new novel Exit Management. It’s one of those books that you want to read very quickly, its writing slickly modern and its characters compellingly flawed. Lauren is a graduate HR employee specialising in the tricky task of making people redundant. She comes from humble beginnings, but wants to put all that behind her, focusing on the dream apartment and the adjoining shiny City life. Callum is a university drop-out who works in guest hospitality, tending rental properties for the rich and famous before heading home to Mum and Dad in dingy Croydon. He comes to provide palliative care for József, a client with multiple sclerosis who lives in an exquisite, art-filled house in an expensive area of London.

Both Lauren and Callum have things that they wish to push out of arm’s reach – and when they meet, in the house that Callum tends and Lauren covets, their attempts to cover up the unsavoury aspects of their lives take a new turn. Lauren is the one constantly trying to keep up the façade of perfection, down to sheering off the top layer of her skin with glycolic acid in a masochistic attempt at beautification. Moments like this have a nightmarish quality; they are done very well and echo the macabre quality of Sealed, Booth’s book before this.

Naomi Booth Exit Management book cover

But despite Lauren’s desire to eschew mess, Booth insists that life’s unpleasantness cannot be kept under wraps. The various themes of her novel – class, gender, family, race – appear disparate at first, but are woven around a series of symbols which knit them together. There is the condom that Lauren never saw come off after a sexual encounter and recurrently worries is stuck inside her. Or the memories of sexual abuse under her father’s watch that surface and resurface, even in her new life. Or the intensely physical description of the painful miscarriages she suffer

But there are also the violets that grow up between the paving stones in József’s garden, even after Lauren has tried to kill them. Sown throughout the book with references to Ophelia’s flower speech; they acknowledge sadness and loss, as well as faithfulness and growth. When, at the end of the novel, Lauren and Callum each bury the objects that remind them of the past – the things they cannot let go of – they do so in the garden of József’s beautiful house, a house Lauren has curated to perfection. Those messy, unpleasant things – that “fallen matter” – will always make up a part of the house’s identity. Similarly, Booth’s characters cannot deny such weaknesses if they wish to be genuine versions of themselves.

There is something playfully disruptive, even modernist, about Booth’s penchant for large space gaps, used to indicate pauses in the speech of her characters. This technique makes the words on the page into visual art, mirroring the colourful abstract canvases on the walls of József’s house. Just as these words constantly try to rewrite themselves, Lauren and Callum attempt to shape their own self-images, with limited success. At the end, these typeset gaps become increasingly invasive and overtake the narrative voice, exposing us to the chaos of Lauren’s own mind. The surface of the perfect life she has tried to construct for herself is shattered. But perhaps this fragmented form, which has something of the modernist stream of consciousness to it, is the only way through which the imperfect experience of life can be conveyed.

Class also plays a crucial role in this fraught atmosphere. Lauren’s childhood, which may have been inspired by Booth’s own experiences of growing up in West Yorkshire, is a world away from the shiny existence she covets and has in part achieved. This trend of unpicking class divisions and breaking down the veneer of corporate city life is popular in contemporary fiction – Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times comes to mind. But at times, the way in which such matters are explored in Exit Management is unsubtle. Lauren’s mum is described thus: “last night’s mascara in clumps; Lycra top and trackies; very little jewellery.” Does this juxtaposition of nasty uplands against shiny South really have to be so stereotypical? Of course, the City is not as perfect as it seems – Booth admits that. But neither, perhaps, is the North wholly grim.

Despite this, Exit Management successfully covers a vast range of themes and genres, not to mention Booth’s experiments with language and typesetting. In the middle, we feel like we’re in thriller territory – but by the end, accents of hope begin to surface. Sometimes, it’s best to let the unpleasant things in. Strong symbols and compelling writing hold this novel firmly together, making it one to read now.

Words constantly try to rewrite themselves; Lauren and Callum attempt to shape their own self-images

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Average: 5 (1 vote)

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