Book review: Lottie Moggach's impressive debut novel has depth, pace

Kiss Me First, whose protagonist is asked to assume the cyber-identity of a woman who has committed suicide, is rich in moral dilemmas, Lucy Scholes writes

In Kiss Me First, Leila is asked to assume the online presence of a woman who will commit suicide. Ted Aljibe / AFP
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A while back I found myself wondering what happened to your Facebook page after you died. One of my Facebook friends had tragically passed away, but there she still was, staring back at me from her profile page. Would it just sit there gathering digital dust, I wondered? Would I still get the automatic reminders to wish her a happy birthday each year? How would anyone at Facebook know this user was no longer with us? This, I found out, is where a "digital executor" steps in. They're like the executor of a will, but their work is specific to your online presence. In the event of your death, they take care of your email accounts, photo albums on Flickr, Twitter feed, Facebook profile, or whatever social media strands you use. But what if they took control of your digital persona instead? What if, in effect, they became you? This is the conceit that lies at the heart of Lottie Moggach's (daughter of the best-selling novelist Deborah Moggach) debut novel Kiss Me First.

Twenty-three year-old Leila is a loner. She lives in a grimy little flat above an Indian restaurant in Rotherhithe, south-east London. She moved here from Kentish Town in north London after her mother died of MS. The cost of the illness - equipment, nurses' fees, her mother's inability to work - has eaten up most of their already meagre finances so all that's left is enough money for them to prepare for the inevitable by buying Leila a flat in a less than salubrious part of town.

With her mother gone, Leila is now completely alone, but she's not necessarily lonely. Friends have never been a huge part of her life. She has 75 on Facebook - her old childhood friend Rashida whom she's since lost touch with; Lucy, a fellow employee from Leila's short-lived employment at a coffee shop; and 73 girls she went to school with who aren't "proper friends" anyway, just people trawling for numbers. It's her other online activities that make her who she is. She works from home, testing computer software for a company that earns her a basic wage, but she fits this around playing World of Warcraft for eight hours a day, which is something of a "full-time job".

It's one of her fellow players who first suggests she check out Red Pill, a "very cool" philosophy chat room run by a man named Adrian Dervish, an American self-styled philosophy guru who inspires an almost cult-like following in the site's users. Leila joins up, and after her first tentative involvement in the discussion threads, quickly graduates from being a "Newly Enlightened" to a regular member, then onwards to the upper echelons of "Elite Thinker" - a title reserved for the few Adrian deems capable of "more advanced thought".

Soon after, she receives a message from Adrian suggesting an "F2F" (that's a face-to-face meeting, for those of us not so fluent in online speak), rather coincidentally opposite the very hospital where her dying mother had been treated. They exchange a few social niceties but Adrian doesn't beat around the bush - is she aware of the "claim argument", he inquires, the concept that "not only do we not have the right to prevent those who wish to end their lives from doing so, but that we actually have a duty to help them, if asked". He explains to Leila that a woman, Tess, has approached him, "desperate to kill herself", but she doesn't want her friends and family to know what she's done, so she and Adrian have hatched a plan to "employ someone to pretend to be her online, so that no one would be able to tell she was not still alive". Leila isn't versed in the complexities of the philosophical argument, but she's eager to please, not to mention well aware, from her own experiences with her mother, of what it's like to see someone suffer, perhaps unnecessarily. And so she agrees to take control of Tess's life, to digitally relocate her to a new home on the other side of the world, write emails to her friends and family about her wonderful new life, post Facebook status updates so nobody realises anything is amiss, then slowly, over time, act as "a dimmer switch" on the life she's created, enabling the avatar that Tess has become to "slip away from the world unnoticed", just as the real Tess will have already done a year or so previously.

Leila and Tess spend hours Skyping so Tess can fill the younger girl in on all the details of her life, and Leila is a diligent student - she even gives up her job, entirely freeing up her time for the project - storing all the information in spreadsheets and wall charts, asking the questions to fill in the many blanks the somewhat flaky Tess leaves out of her story. Then, one day they're done. They end their final conversation, the screen in front of Leila goes blank, and the real work begins.

To describe her as "immersed" in Tess's new life is a bit of an understatement; the moment it strikes 9am on the isolated island in Canada she's relocated Tess to, Leila's "on stage" as the other woman for the next 16 hours or so. At first it's as straightforward, and as fun, as playing one of the computer games she loves: "like having an avatar, but much better." But slowly the lines between the two women become blurred; Leila becomes Tess, but the flip side of this is that Tess becomes Leila - and despite her isolation from the real world, this new Leila/Tess still wants some of the perks of an actual bodily existence.

Leila is a fascinating creation. Since she narrates the novel from the very first right through to the bitter end, initially it's hard to comprehend quite how "different" she is, but as the story progresses, Moggach leaves us clever clues along the way that, pieced together, paint a picture of a woman who's not just out of the loop (she has to "Google" most of the references made by her own generation), but most likely somewhere on the autistic spectrum. She recalls a builder who, discovering her name was Leila, always sung the first few lines of the songLayla when he saw her, but after she pointed out the difference in the spellings, can't understand why he keeps on singing it. She's unable to independently recognise emotions, turning to the internet for "research, cross-referencing various definitions of the emotion with my feeling", and her imaginative capacity is next to none: "I tried to imagine him in his flat in Kensal Green but, as I had never been inside a flat in Kensal Green, my mind came up blank." Even her own grandmother calls her a "big, weird child". There's also the dogged logic with which she tells her story, so all-encompassing is her character. There's nothing unreliable about this narrator; she's painfully truthful.

Kiss Me First is a debut of surprising depths. It's rich in moral dilemmas and contemporary philosophical wrangling, from thoughts of assisted suicide to "the dangers of the internet and this lost generation of young people, vulnerable little souls who were there to be taken advantage of". But at the same time it's written with the pace of an easily digestible thriller. My only complaint is that it's one of those stories where all the loose ends are surprisingly neatly tied up, but this is a minor gripe in an otherwise praise-filled appreciation of a novelist who looks set to take the literary world by storm.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist based in London.