Allison has been with Owen since university. She’s given up on writing her novel and is working a dull office job at the local council – now it feels like the only interesting thing about her is that she’s Owen’s girlfriend. But he’s slipping away from her, and Allison has no idea who she’ll be without him.
Panicking, she absorbs him…
Soon Allison begins taking on Owen’s best qualities, becoming the person she always thought she should be. But is Owen all she needs to complete herself? Will Allison ever be a whole person?
Absorbed is the original and timely debut novel from Kylie Whitehead; a darkly comic story of female insecurity, body horror and modern relationships.
When I heard that two of my favourite indie presses, Dead Ink and Influx Press, had got together for a collaborative project, I got a bit excited. And then I read about it and got even MORE excited. From the website:
“New Ruins is a paperback originals imprint focused on the porous and uncanny boundary between the edge-lands of literary and genre fiction.
New Ruins publishes books that are comfortable sitting across, within, or outside of genre labels, for readers unafraid of transgressing boundaries.”
To me, that is just music to my ears. And so I was delighted when the lovely Jordan Taylor-Jones sent me a review copy of New Ruins’ first book, Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead, which sounded as weird and wonderful as I hoped.
I read this book so quickly, devouring it, perhaps appropriately, over a couple of night time reading sessions. It definitely gave me weird dreams. And it definitely flits across boundaries – it is a modern love story, a horror story, at times a story of personal development, at others dipping into supernatural mysteries. It is unsettling and engrossing in equal measures. The protagonist, Allison, is a curious mix of being pretty self-aware, calling herself out on her flaws and foibles, and (pardon the pun) self-absorbed, childish, unable to see how her actions affect those around her until it is too late and the consequences have spiralled out of control. She isn’t particularly likeable, but that is a strength of the book – I have said it before, I’m sure, but we need more dislikeable women in novels.
The plot, as is clear from the blurb, is as mad as it sounds. Yes, Allison literally absorbs her boyfriend. There’s no rationalising or metaphorizing it – that is what happens, and then Allison must try and figure out what to do next. You do need to hop on board and accept this premise, but there is a decent amount of Allison also feeling bewildered and confused and trying to figure out what the hell has happened, so it’s clearly not ‘normal’ even within the confines of the storyworld. As we learn more about Allison’s past, there are hints of how this could have come about, but again, everything is hazy and the truth is hard to pin down. Two characters, Maggie and Odile, are remarkably accepting of Allison’s version of events, but by allowing her to share the story of her absorption of Owen with a couple of people, the plot can open out a little to include witnesses to her drama.
The story gets gradually darker and more physically uncomfortable – always with the shadowy sense of not being sure exactly what is going on. In this way, Whitehead allies us closely with Allison’s first person narrative – like Allison, we are struggling to make sense of the changing sensations and emotions she is going through. I felt quite on edge reading this book, always waiting for something horrific to happen, for some massive revelation, and I think there is some very clever suspense threaded through the sometimes rather casual-seeming descriptions of Allison limping on with her existence as best she can in the circumstances. There’s a good pay-off for this, though not the one I was expecting, and I got a lovely shiver down my spine when I realised where the narrative was headed.
It is tricky to describe my feelings for this book, which is about as far from a warm and fuzzy read as you can get – it definitely provoked a visceral reaction, and I found myself oddly aware of my body as I was reading. There is a delicious warping of reality, a scratching away at the veneer of normality – at one point I couldn’t stop thinking about how bloody weird pregnancy is, having another being growing inside you, at another, I wondered how far loving someone means wanting to be them. This book raises so many questions, and has dark fun exploring them, though it is not necessarily forthcoming with the answers. Relationships, friendships, parent-child bonds are all examined through the smashed surface of a fractured mirror, and it’s a disorientating and weirdly compulsive experience. I would absolutely read more of Whitehead’s work, and I am excited to see what New Ruins comes out with next, too.
Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead is out in May from New Ruins, and is available to pre-order here.