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Naomi Booth's Exit Management

Cara Lee talks to York-based author Naomi Booth about writing thrillers and the city's best bookshops

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Image Credit: Naomi Booth

There was a point in time when every other post on my Twitter timeline was of Exit Management and so naturally, it wasn’t long before I caved and ordered it. The reviews promised a memorable exploration of class, race, family, and history, illustrated with haunting prose and a strikingly original voice, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Naomi Booth’s poetically fragmented writing captures the unsettling transience of the last few years: the constant issues of identity and questioning “where do I belong?” in the face of Brexit, turbulence in our social, political and cultural history, and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. Naomi, raised in Dewsbury but now living in York, significantly adds to the canon of northern literature with Exit Management. The north of England is notoriously overlooked and underrepresented in literature and publishing, but Naomi, among other writers such as Jessica Andrews, are part of a recent movement to write, or rewrite, the north. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Naomi, firstly in December, on the eve of Brexit and the third national lockdown, and again in May, as we creep out into something on the verge of ‘normality’.

Exit Management is a thriller of sorts, with its jittery, anxiety-fuelled prose revolving around three characters: Lauren and Callum, both in their twenties, and József, a Hungarian art dealer, whose luxurious house is in Cal’s care and Lauren’s aspirations. József fled to London following the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and his success leads him to the fictional Elgin Mews. Naomi stated that “I knew early on in writing that I wanted to explore intergenerational relationships and a triangle between three characters”, but Exit Management focuses on class conflict too, which is refreshing. Naomi notes that Cal has “a somewhat romantic attachment to József’s stories of his past and his experiences of elsewhere”, suggesting not only that history repeats itself, but that it in fact perpetually influences the present, through Cal’s rose-tinted view of the past.

Despite being fictional, Naomi’s characterisation is utterly believable; though her own childhood was in Dewsbury, as is Lauren’s, the characters are “amalgams from different experiences and different aspects of research”. When I asked why she chose József ’s story to be the link, she replied that she wanted all the characters to have had their own fiercely different struggles through life, and that he is “the most optimistic and also the most vulnerable” character. Lauren’s determination to outrun the past no matter the cost to others seemingly creates a stereotypical villain, but the weight of her past completely sways her present, making it near impossible to dislike her.

Exit Management begins with Lauren searching for a flat in London, framing the novel and excellently capturing the feeling of non-existence and displacement in a city. London, in all its sleekness, obscures the identities, grief and experiences of individuals within its confines. This idea of existence is important to Naomi, as she is interested in the “ghostly traces of the past” that are subsumed by gentrification. She chose Elgin Mews to be located “in the Maida Vale/Little Venice area, because it seemed to me to be an especially good example of... the cultural difference that London can produce — extreme wealth existing alongside extreme precarity.”

Lauren’s ambition is firmly tied to trying to root herself in the present, but Naomi suggests this is exceptionally difficult in a city like London, where everything is constantly changing. Importantly though, large chunks of the novel take place in Yorkshire, joining the trend to decentre London as the literary and economic capital. The UK is heavily London-centric, with London being invested in far more frequently and generously than Yorkshire and the north of England. The progression away from London can be seen in other recent bestselling fiction: Okechukwu Nzelu’s The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, which takes place in Manchester and Cambridge, or Jessica Andrews’s Saltwater, in which the protagonist rejects London for the rurality of Ireland. About this, Naomi says, “I think that people are increasingly aware of the diversity of literary talent across the country, and of the importance of telling stories from different perspectives — within London and across the UK’s different
regions’’. This move towards a greater diversity in publishing and literature can only be commended and encouraged to continue.

The dreaded “B” word was bound to come up in our conversation, since it looms over the timeframe and title of Exit Management: Brexit. Naomi explores it well, using Cal’s parents, who voted differently, to showcase disparate viewpoints, alluding to the prevalence of misinformation surrounding Brexit when Cal’s mother tells him to “Leave him to it, love. He’ll see, he’ll see who’s naïve, who’s been lied to, if it goes ahead”. Speaking about the future, post-Brexit and hopefully soon post-Covid, Naomi states she is “anxious, and uncertain, and intermittently hopeful”, much like her characters in Exit Management.

Uncertain hope recurs throughout the novel, ending on József’s refrain “You’re alive, aren’t you? So there is hope”, unsettling the reader with its eerie optimism. About this ending, I asked why it was the message Naomi wanted to leave, to which she replied “I was making final revisions to the novel in the first few weeks of lockdown, and I felt that the ending needed to be a knife-edge between hope and despair (which might also be how many of us have felt through this last year)”. This insecurity in feelings is present throughout Exit Management— we can never quite land on one emotion. The cool, heartless façade of the outside world in the early days of the first lockdown is reflected in Lauren’s belief that it is “always important to limit physical contact with different surfaces in central London, in order to mitigate against the risk of infection”. I laughed aloud when reading this sentence, at its incredible pertinence.

Being published into a pandemic is deemed by Naomi a “disconnected” experience: she said that “being unable to go into bookshops or talk with readers at real life events meant that the novel didn’t feel entirely ‘real’ to me”. On the other hand though, the positives include the fact that she has been able to “‘attend’ events in Beirut and New York”, making Exit Management’s publication certainly memorable.

Speaking to authors is always a reminder that writing a book is not a quick and easy process — more’s the pity for me and my as yet unmet New Year’s Resolutions. I asked Naomi about her writing journey, and the books that inspired Exit Management and her other work. “I’ve loved reading and writing for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I half-lived in imaginary worlds, and to some extent that never stopped. I worked various jobs in my twenties, hoping to write alongside them, but never quite managing. I realised I would only manage to write with some external help, and in my late twenties I completed an MA at Sussex part-time while working. This really gave me the discipline and structure and inspiration that I needed, and set me on the way to writing.”

Several novels served as direct inspiration for Exit Management: Naomi lists “the work of Sándor Márai, especially his Memoir of Hungary 1944-48. I learned about the New Crossfire through Jay Bernard’s brilliant collection of poetry, Surge, which made me rethink my relationship to the history of London. I’d also been reading Eimear McBride’s work when I did a final rewrite of the novel: I loved The Lesser Bohemians, and the fragmented immediacy of her style, and I think this inspired me to be more experimental with my own prose style.”

Throughout our interviews, Naomi emphasised the importance of smaller presses and shops; in such strange times particularly, we must continue to fund small businesses and organisations who open our eyes to the less mainstream media experiences. Published by Dead Ink Books, Naomi says she will “remain eternally grateful that they were willing to take a risk on a very weird work of eco-horror” with her first novel, Sealed. Dead Ink, a Liverpool-based independent publishing press and part of the Northern Fiction Alliance, are “committed to taking risks on bold new writing, and they’ve recently published some phenomenal new books”, including recent works discussing illness, toxic masculinity, and social class.

Though Exit Management is an undeniably dark read, it is also utterly compelling, telling a history of modern London and exploring classism, grief, xenophobia, and trying to find and root yourself in the present. Being an English literature student, my final question to Naomi was inevitable: York boasts an abundance of brimming bookshops, and I had to find out which she turns to for her next reads. She agreed: “We’re spoiled for bookshops here in York. I’m a big fan of the brilliant Little Apple Bookstore on High Petergate, and also of Fox Lane Books, who usually support events but now provide gorgeously wrapped deliveries of books. Both of these bookshops have been selling directly online during the pandemic, and they can get hold of almost anything.

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