Before lockdown, I wasn’t aware that there was a sub-genre of psychological thrillers that centre on property purchases, even though I’d read the occasional novel that would fit this brief – Kate Murray-Browne’s excellent The Upstairs Room is one example. However, one of my neighbours is clearly a big fan of Louise Candlish’s fiction, and has deposited thriller after thriller in our little free neighbourhood library, all of which focus on people buying, selling and losing houses, often because of hostility on their street (Our House; Those People; The Sudden Departure of the Frasers.) Although I am a bit concerned about what this says about how my neighbour feels about our other neighbours, I’ve also got into this sub-genre. Most obviously, these books are about class; the protagonists tend to be aspirational and upwardly mobile, and obsessively concerned with not living near anybody who doesn’t fit their own standards. At the same time, they idolise those who operate in a higher social echelon, and fantasise about moving into a particular house or street to live that kind of life – even though, once they get there, they usually feel uncomfortable. However, what interests me more than this pretty straightforward classism is how intensely concerned these novels are with our desire to use space to keep others out, not just those whom we look down upon, but anybody at all.
Naomi Booth’s new novel, Exit Management, takes the uneasiness brewing beneath the surface of these thrillers and boils it into a froth. Unlike Candlish’s dissatisfied middle-class leads, both her protagonists come from working-class backgrounds. Cal works as a concierge for a firm that rents out elite London residences to wealthy clients; however, he’s become very close to one of the homeowners who uses the firm, elderly and terminally ill Jozsef, who introduces him to a world of visual art that he’s never experienced before. Lauren handles ‘exit management’ for HR, easing people gently out of their jobs, and finds she has a natural talent for it. Outside work, she desperately seeks a house that might fit both her tastes and her price range, and keeps coming up short. When Cal asks Lauren out on a date, everything starts moving very quickly – although I’m not sure what the publisher’s blurb for Exit Management is going on about when it talks about the trio descending into ‘a deadly spiral of violence’, so I’d suggest ignoring it.
I’ve already read at least one review for Exit Management which talks about class and Brexit, and yes, those elements are present in the novel, but I don’t think they’re what the book’s really about. (Booth is also the first fiction writer I’ve seen not to resort to the lazy ‘white working class = xenophobia = Brexit voters’ narrative, writing a scene where Cal’s parents, who voted different ways in the referendum, debate the issue, and making it clear that even Cal’s dad’s leave vote wasn’t driven by what we might think of as the obvious motives.) As I said, these kind of novels are about keeping other people out, and keeping ourselves in. Because of this, even though Exit Management is, on the surface, very different from Booth’s last novel, the pandemic eco-horror Sealed, they also have a lot in common. Both books are concerned with our firm but false belief that we can uphold our own physical boundaries, and how environmental degradation makes that impossible. As Lauren reflects, her body is full of ‘single-use objects that never go away: the piece of chewing gum she’d swallowed as a child; the end of coral-coloured gel nail she’d once bitten off in a meeting… and that night back in 2008… when she’d insisted on a condom and she’d seen the empty foil packet on the floor, but no condom had re-emerged, post-coitus’.
Exit Management pulls off an unusual feat: it works remarkably well as mainstream literary fiction, with vivid characterisation, an evocative sense of place, and satisfyingly complex social tensions, but it also operates on a more experimental level. At first, you might not notice the slightly-too-big gaps between the words in certain sentences; but as they widen and become more frequent near the end of the novel, you might start to wonder what’s underneath those empty spaces. For me, even though very little of the text is missing, I felt like it was being gradually eaten away by something terrifying that lacks any kind of edges of its own, like the Nothing in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. If you want to read Exit Management solely for its social and political plot, you can; but there’s definitely something else lurking at its margins.