A tremendous debut novel by Kylie Whitehead, Absorbed is at once a nightmarish body-horror story, the kind of which Cronenberg would be impressed with, and an intimate and often very funny examination of female friendship and modern relationships.
Allison absorbs her boyfriend after a party. She doesn’t mean to, “I wasn’t scared,” she says, “but Owen was.” She’s working a dull council job alongside Jean, whose “age and passion for local government made her superior to me,” though once had a passion for writing which appears to have wavered. Owen is the one who made steps towards being creative, quitting his job without telling her and setting up shop in a workspace. The women that he befriends there getting too close to him in Allison’s view, and all of them far more creative than she feels she is. It is a New Year’s party at the workspace that kick-starts the novel, when Allison spies her boyfriend getting too close to a colleague, “I was so desperate for him not to leave me,” she says.
After she absorbs him, she begins to reflect qualities she admired in Owen. She tells different stories about his disappearance to different people, unsure as to what has happened. Is it Owen’s qualities that allow her to start recognising things in herself that she doesn’t like? That start to allow her to lower her defences and get closer to people? Perhaps she has always been absorbing people, leeching off them in some ways.
Absorbed, is a subtle horror novel. It contains elements of both body horror and ghost stories. There are elements of possessions and poltergeists here but punctuated by the terrifying screams of a man being absorbed into his girlfriend. After he is absorbed, Owen’s clothes move from place to place in their flat, and his books appear read. Allison feels his grip on her sometimes. But there are no ghosts or easy answers. Upon arriving at a house at one point, Allison spies what she believes are spectral forms, but then realises that “what I saw were not ghosts, but furniture covered with sheets.” But it would be wrong to label this book a ghost story, and it would perhaps be wrong to try and label it at all. As Allison says later in the novel, “absorbing Owen had brought me closer to him, but there was something so conventional about the paranormal that terrified me.” The book rejects easy explanations and tropes, opting instead for a beautiful ambiguity.
If you to try and define Absorbed, you would perhaps describe it best as David Cronenberg doing Normal People, but that is a disservice to this novel. It’s about the version of ourselves that we want to present to the world and the version of ourselves that we try and bury deep down. It’s about how we think others see us and how we want to be seen. It’s about so desperately wanting to take on another’s personality that you’ll absorb those parts of them. It’s also one of the most accomplished debuts in a long, long time; and if it isn’t one of the best books of 2021 then you’re in for a hell of a year for fiction.
Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead is published by New Ruins.