Lottie Moggach’s debut is an unnerving and compelling read. It is different to any other thriller I have read in a while, and I’m still having trouble working out whether I enjoyed it or not.
The protagonist and narrator is Leila, a strange, sheltered and obsessive young woman who is not easily likeable. Leila lives a secluded existence, working online from home and spending her spare time surfing the internet and playing World of Warcraft. Her lack of friends is partly put down to the fact that she spent her years since school as a full time carer for her mother, who suffered from MS. Now her mother has passed away, Leila is truly isolated, with no father, siblings or close friends. But it is more than that – Leila doesn’t seem to want friends. She struggles to understand the ways that other twenty-somethings of her generation communicate, and purposely avoids social situations and conversations, instead preferring to spend her time alone.
But things change for Leila when she stumbles across a website called Red Pill – a philosophical forum of sorts, where deep-thinking rationalists debate their opinions on various issues and theories. At Red Pill, Leila finally feels like she has found a like-minded community; those who look at the world with an abstract perspective and consider the bigger picture, with no interest in the seemingly mundane, shallow concerns which preoccupy most of her peers. (On girls from her school she says: “Their lives were filled with banal drama. I remember that Rachel Jacobs once wrote – OMG!! – she had dropped her Oyster card down the toilet. I mean, who needs or wants to know that?”)
Leila loves contributing to Red Pill, and they love her. She quickly makes her way up the website’s ranks and is ‘promoted’ to Elite Thinker status. Then the leader of the website, Adrian Dervish, asks Leila for a ‘face-to-face’. Leila feels privileged and flattered to have been picked out by the esteemed ‘web guru’ and immediately agrees to meet up with him in person.
During their meeting the conversation quickly steers over to philosophical matters – Adrian asks Leila her opinion on the claim argument which states “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.” Leila, desperate to impress this beguiling man and firm in her own beliefs after witnessing her mother’s deterioration with MS, emphatically agrees. And so Adrian puts to her the Tess Project.
Tess is a striking 38-year-old woman who suffers from bipolar disorder. She is gregarious, whimsical and capricious; a social butterfly whose impulsive behaviour has a tendency to leave a trail of destruction in her wake. The complete opposite of sheltered, reclusive, rational Leila. But Tess is tired of her volatile, wild lifestyle. She’s had enough of life altogether – she wants to quietly slip away from the world, without her extensive circle of friends being any the wiser. Leila is enlisted to help her by taking over Tess’s online presence; responding to emails and updating Facebook as if she were Tess, so that Tess’s friends and family will not notice anything is amiss.
Adrian gives Leila time to think about the proposition, but she’s made her mind up almost straight away. Whether it is down to the flattery she feels that Adrian has singled her out, or her own strong feelings about euthanasia and suicide, Leila seems set on taking on the challenge.
The story moves back and forth between present day, when Leila is searching for evidence of what happened to Tess after the project is completed, and the tale of how she embarked upon the project. As the author draws us into Leila’s secluded world which begins to revolve more and more around the Tess Project, the book takes on an uncomfortable and unnerving feel. For me, Leila’s character is distinctly unlikeable; she seems to have no conscience and no concept of the gravity of the task she is taking on. She throws herself into the work, as if taking over the life of a suicidal woman is any normal 9-5 job. At points in the book I almost felt guilt and shame on Leila’s behalf, whilst she felt no remorse herself. There is definitely a hint of some deeper psychological issues in Leila, although this isn’t fully explored.
This intense debut is less about identity theft, and more about someone losing their own sense of identity. Leila has no real life to speak of, and instead lives through the fictional world she has developed for Tess, saying “I immersed myself in building up Tess’s life, imagining what she was going to wear that day and have for her lunch and the next thing she was going to buy for her new flat.” This is more than just your standard thriller; it is a piece of contemporary adult literature which examines issues of identity, isolation, mental illness and assisted suicide, all wrapped up in a modern, 21st century plot.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller full of twists and turns, then this book may not be for you, particularly as – in my opinion – the ending is leaves something to be desired. Kiss Me First is more of a slow burner; it is an interesting, original debut which brings something a little bit different to the thriller market. I’ll definitely be watching out to see what Lottie Moggach does next.