review: kiss me first
Reading Lottie Moggach’s debut novel Kiss Me First is like experiencing an extended claustrophobic fever-dream. From the perspective of an intense and unreliable narrator, this slow-burning novel explores obsession, connection, loneliness and identity, all through the mode of online communication.
Leila is an intelligent, antisocial and reclusive young woman who lacks empathy or self-awareness. Following her dependent mother’s death from multiple sclerosis, Leila’s sole significant relationship with another person is terminated. Her tenuous connection to reality narrows significantly, as she barely leaves her small apartment and retreats instead to the online world. Leila becomes drawn into and obsessed by the philosophical forums of a website named Red Pill. It is only within this artificial space, where logic rules supreme, that she feels accepted and respected. Leila’s life shifts when Red Pill’s charismatic owner Adrian approaches her, and asks her to help him perpetrate a noble and selfless exercise in free will. He enlists her to assume the online presence of Tess, a suicidal woman, in order to conceal her impending death from her family and friends and convince them that she is still communicating with them from afar.
It’s a borderline ridiculous plot, reminiscent of recent bestseller Gone Girl in its hyperdramatised exploration of the outer limits of human behaviour. Kiss Me First’s depiction of the unprecedented access to and documentation of individual lives offered by social media makes it chillingly relevant to the way we live now. The sequence of events played out by Leila and Tess may strain credulity, but the underlying message is not only terrifying, but important. At its heart Kiss Me First raises a tangle of moral and philosophical questions, which are closely tied to the eternally divisive issues of voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. Is it more humane to save a life that doesn’t want saving, or to aid in a desired death? Can an otherwise healthy person with the desire to die be deemed stable and in their right mind?
As Leila gradually assumes Tess’s online persona, Kiss Me First presents a frighteningly accurate portrayal of the often-artificial nature of social media profiles. Most people’s Facebook pages are carefully curated, to the extent that a stranger familiar with essence of their personality could easily identify which parts of their life they will prioritise and choose to share with friends and followers. There are echoes here of Theseus’s paradox, which questions whether an object, which has had its minute components gradually, replaced until no original elements remain, is still the same object. If Leila is able to perfectly replicate Tess’s communications to the extent that Tess’s friends and family still believe they’re talking to her, has she replaced Tess?
Leila is a difficult character, alternately pitiable and repugnant. Her behaviour is questionable, but she calmly and rationally explains her justifications to the reader. While the note of redemption on which the book ends may ring a little false, the journey it takes in order to get there – via real and imaginary trips from dreary suburban England to a commune in Spain and a hippy village in Canada – is a chilling and disconcerting examination of the perils and possibilities the internet offers.
Kiss Me First is an unsettling novel with an underlying melancholy. Though they have disparate life experiences and personality types, both Leila and Tess are damaged and lonely. As a psychological study, the novel uses extremes of experience to examine universal truths. The unpredictable plot is engaging, and its exploration of the twin themes of euthanasia and online authenticity is both timely and impressively nuanced.
Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach is published by Picador