Moral dilemmas abound in Kiss Me First. Leila has recently lost her mum, and is living on her own for the first time. She becomes involved in an online community called The Red Pill, which ostensibly is a site discussing philosophy and ethics. Through its founder, Adrian, Leila is introduced to the idea of helping someone who has chosen to commit suicide. Helping by taking over their online presence.
And so Leila is introduced to Tess, virtually. At first they communicate by email, but this doesn’t fulfil Leila’s need for information. If she is to impersonate Tess’s digital persona she needs more direct contact. They switch to webcams, although Leila remains hidden, a voice not an image. What is so beautifully done in this novel is the exposure of a life. As Leila dissects Tess’s past it is actually Leila who is laid bare before us. The more Leila tries to explain what happened, in her literal, chronological way, her sheltered childhood, her outsider status, and her extremes of logic are all intimately revealed.
We are told the story in retrospect, as Leila seeks the truth about ‘what happened’. Leila’s understanding of the nuances and contradictions of human behaviour develops as she explains her role in the strange events. Living vicariously gives her emotional opportunities, both good and bad. She gets a taste of love and betrayal. She also sees alternative ways of living, things she may actually want to do herself, in real life. Lottie Moggach skilfully plays with a tension between Leila’s physical insularity and her emotional development.
I’m not convinced Leila ever fully understands the dubious morality and faulty reasoning of her decision to help Tess though. She is caught up in a desire to help someone that she comes to consider a friend, and is influenced by a man she admires. She responds to Adrian’s flattery and the trust he puts in her abilities. She believes strongly in an individual’s right to die, but spends little time considering the impact of withholding the decision and act from friends and family. Leila’s tendency to usually see things in black and white doesn’t allow her to grasp the greyness that results if someone fades away and gradually loses contact with everyone. Those left behind will suffer in a continual state of uncertainty. For someone who struggles with ambiguity in her own life she is very willing to allow others to deal with a great deal of it.
I loved the way the story is told and developed. Adrian, and his cultish Red Pill club, is suitably manipulative and ultimately pathetic. I’m not sure how social media comes out of it all. It surely makes it easier to be anonymous, isolated, tricked even. But it’s not the technology that causes the problems, but the people using it. Leila hasn’t withdrawn from the world because of computers, but because of her experiences in the world. Her computer facilitates her introverted lifestyle, after her way of life has already been set. Cults with manipulative leaders existed long before the World Wide Web. As did those that wanted to cut themselves off from their contemporaries. For me, Kiss Me First acted more as a corrective against knee-jerk reactions blaming social media for the ills of society. It is most definitely a book to get the old brain ticking over!
Thank you so much to Picador for sending me an advance copy of Kiss Me First to review. It is published on 4th July 2013 in Hardback.