Exit Management, Naomi Booth

The term ‘exit management’ is one Lauren’s HR consultancy uses as a euphemism for helping their clients to fire troublesome employees. Lauren is exceptional at it, and is highly valued by her monstrous boss, Mina, for her emotional control and ability to get the worst jobs done. Lauren meets Callum by colliding with him outside one of the expensive houses he is paid to look after. She thinks it is his, but it is actually owned by the terminally ill József, Cal’s favourite client and father figure.

Lauren, Cal and József’s stories intertwine. Each had challenging childhoods of different kinds. We see Lauren and Cal’s points-of-view in alternate chapters, with the old man’s voice coming from Cal’s love of hearing József talk. He worships József, who is happy to bring his parents’ memories back to life for Cal. We hear about Hungary’s role in the second world war, the fall of Budapest, and the fate of his mother, but he also educates Cal in classical music, paintings and culture. Cal is so close to József, that when Lauren thinks József is his father, he doesn’t correct her.

The prose style is brilliant, alternating between Lauren’s slowly fragmenting sense of control and Cal’s mixture of deep care for others and self-loathing. For all their front, both Lauren and Cal are from working class estates, and while József might be clear-eyed about what he needs from Cal, Cal and Lauren are driven by a mixture of ambition and more ambiguous unconscious desires. Anxiety is such a rich playground for playing with language. Where József seems to have found a way to live with his family’s history, Lauren and Cal’s family dramas play out in the present. Plenty can go wrong in the grey areas of what is assumed and not said.