"People were talking a lot about death that fall, the fall of my senior year, because Brooke Lee had died right there in the girls’ bathroom across from the gym. I didn’t pay attention to most of it. My classmates were no more than what Usha and I had named them – biblicals, well-rounders, testos, and the rest – and they were always babbling on about one thing or another. But after I died, they started talking about my death and then I had no choice but to listen."
Seventeen-year-old Paige Wheeler fell off the roof of the school during physics class. At least, she’s pretty sure that her fall was an accident. She died, but instead of moving on, she finds herself stuck at Paul Revere High School, locked into a radius that allows her to venture just to the edges of the school grounds. Brooke and Evan are two other seventeen-year-olds who died at the school – Brooke from a cocaine overdose in the girls’ bathroom, and Evan from something else, although he is hesitant to talk about it. He has been at the school for years, but neither Brooke nor Paige know for how long.
The three ghosts haunt the school, attending classes during the day and retreating to the library at night. Evan attends all of Mr. Fisk’s art classes, but Paige is more deliberate in her daily actions. She follows her best friend Usha and eavesdrops into conversations that have her death as the topic. When “the gaggingly beautiful Kelsey Pope” spreads a rumor that Paige jumped from the roof, committing suicide, Paige decides she has to do something. She doesn’t want the rumor getting back to her friends and family; she is positive that her fall was an accident.
As she follows her friends and other students around the school, Paige discovers that she has the ability to possess them – for a few minutes or for an entire day of school. All they have to do is think her name – Paige – and she can leap inside of their bodies, talking and acting as she will. She follows Usha through the halls, watching how her best friend deals with her death, remembering their shopping trips to secondhand stores when Paige was alive: “At least I fold up easily in my soft-skin clothes – old jeans and velvety jacket from one of Usha’s vintage scrounges. She’s convinced me to like about used clothes what most people hate: the other bodies that have unstiffened their elbows and knees, stretched out their pockets, salted them with sweat, only to toss the clothes out at the precise moment when they are really ready to be worn.”
Absent is a book about the reaction to death, and in this case, not just the reaction of students to the death of a friend, but how a teenager reacts to the fact of his/her own death. Paige is around to watch her friends in the aftermath of her fall, and she fears the day that they will start to forget about her, slowly but surely. She died as a senior, and she faces the fact that the people who know her well will all be graduating from high school at the end of the year. Williams weaves Paige’s confusion over her death with the reality of the world moving on without her. Her desperation leads her to inch her way back into the lives of her friends in any way she can.
I read Absent almost all at once, but the story lost me near the end. The careful way that Paige comes to terms with her death, and the difference between her accidental fall or possible suicide, is unwound by a supernatural turn near the end of the book. Although this is a supernatural story – Paige, Evan, and Brooke are ghosts haunting their high school, and have the ability to possess the students there – the supernatural aspects were used to heighten the sense of mortality, death, and resolution. Initially it was a much more human book because of way Williams employed the supernatural. But something about the end of the book and this turn did not follow with the careful narrative Williams told for almost 150 pages, which is instead stopped short by a shorthand version of the “deus ex machina.”
Regardless, Absent places Williams’s writing on display, and invites the reader to get wound up in a lyrical, descriptive story narrated by a likeable and ghostly protagonist. She writes about high school in a realistic and perceptive way, getting right the small details about the way it becomes a small world for teenagers for the years that they are stuck there.