Kiss Me First has an intriguing concept which is well-executed, demonstrating that Lottie Moggach deserves as much recognition as her mother (the Deborah Moggach with various best-sellers behind her name). The premise of the novel is that Leila, a young internet addict with a keen interest in philosophy, is presented with an unusual request: help a stranger maintain a virtual life to enable her to commit suicide without causing any grief to her family and friends. Given the arguments which Leila has previously expressed on a philosophy internet forum for ‘elite thinkers’, she feels philosophically obliged to assist the stranger, Tess, and assume her online identity. She embraces the practical and logistical challenge, but somewhat naively ignores the emotional hazards, which come to a head when an old friend of Tess’s gets back in contact, severely threatening both Leila and Tess’s identities.
Kiss Me First has probably gained so much critical acclaim because of its concept – the construction of identity in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. As reality attempts to catch up with its virtual counterpart, and the law makes tentative steps into the world of virtual goods, and virtual lives (it is now a criminal offence to steal a virtual item or to ‘murder’ somebody’s virtual avatar), identity – what it consists of, ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ – is a popular debate.
I could go into more depth on this subject, but to do so would almost be doing Kiss Me First a disservice. This book is well written, with a surprisingly believable character placed in a compelling situation. It should succeed to capture its audience on these merits alone. The protagonist, 23-year-old Leila, managed to fascinate all members of the reading group for the Guardian First Book Award, not just those of a comparable age. This might seem a small achievement, but I would argue that it is significant. Young authors often fall into a trap of writing about young characters who have no point of interest for an older readership. Leila’s personality on the other hand was so ‘different’ that she proved an object of fascination for all of us. Her intelligence and engagement with philosophical debate is matched with an inability to understand complex emotional and social situations. Her exploration of Tess’s life prior to assuming her identity is a neat way of looking at her clinical approach to emotion – the questions dissect Tess in a frighteningly cold way, although Leila is of course just trying to do the job at hand. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is trying to figure Leila out. Should we sympathise, or condemn her actions?
Overall, Kiss Me First is a sophisticated piece which could become a modern classic. It is perhaps let down by its title (and cover, although we all know the mantra about book covers), but is surely one of the best novels set in the here-and-now which I have read.