[Narrator Leila is finding out everything she can about another young woman, Tess, for an elaborate reason]
I also decided that we should take photos of Tess for me to later superimpose on scenes of wherever it was she was going, to post on Facebook. One evening I asked her to show me the clothes in her wardrobe, and she positioned the laptop on the side of the bed and pulled them out, one by one, holding them up against her. Once we had agreed on certain outfits, suitable for different seasons and weather conditions, she put them on…
Once dressed, I directed her how to use the self-timer on her camera to take photos of herself wearing various outfits against a blank wall in her room, in a variety of poses. She then emailed them over for me to check. Tess seemed to enjoy the session, happily rummaging through her stuff, holding things up for my opinion, exclaiming with delight as she chanced upon a favourite jacket she thought she’d lost. I don’t have any interest in clothes and didn’t know what she was talking about most of the time – vintage Ossie, my old Dries top – but I quite enjoyed it, too. It pleased me to see her happy.
observations: This is a book I was happy to be proved wrong about. The author is the daughter of Deborah Moggach, a very successful author and screenwriter – perhaps best-known for the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (book and now two films) – and this book was described as a new kind of thriller, tackling life online, and ‘a much-anticipated debut.’
That all leaves me very straight-faced indeed, and I was in no hurry to read Kiss Me First. But actually it’s tremendous stuff, and if I could I would have read it in one sitting.
The concept has been widely described and discussed: Leila, a lonely young woman without much of a life, but with some computer expertise, gets involved in a strange online forum. As a result of this she is asked – by the very sinister Adrian - if she will help another woman: one who wants to commit suicide, but would like to do so without her family and friends knowing. So: Leila is to take over all Tess’s online activities, particularly Facebook and email, and pretend to be her, talking to her friends and describing a new life abroad. This is ludicrous (and there is a question of computers identifying locations, which is never addressed) but that didn’t matter, it was such a flat-out great concept that I was quite happy to go along with it.
I found the description of Leila taking over absolutely fascinating. She is something of an unreliable narrator, or perhaps one who slowly reveals herself, and I thought this was very cleverly done. (There was one clue just for UK readers when she describes herself buying clothes at Evans in Brent Cross). There’s a double time frame: we know something has gone wrong and that Leila is trying to save the situation, trying to find out exactly what happened to Tess. In one of her finer moments, Leila explains this:
It also felt wrong to abandon her just because things had got complicated. I thought of a sticker that our next-door-neighbour had on their car: A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. Of course, Tess was not a pet, but the sentiment struck a chord.Leila’s perceptions of the world around her are very funny, and the entire book would have been worth reading just for the list of questions she prepares for Tess early on, after scouring Tess’s computer usage and emails:
1. In an email dated 27/ 12/ 08, Nicholas wrote, ‘Thank you for ruining lunch’. What did you do to ruin lunch? And why is he thanking you?...
3. Was the nickname ‘Sugartits’ widely used, or just by Steven Gateman?...
5. In one email regarding a date with a man called Jamie in May 2009 you wrote, ‘he was intellectually beneath me.’ Yet you only got one A-level yourself, in art. What kind of qualifications did he get?...
There should be an app to create such a question-list from all our email caches.
10. You registered once at the site adultfriendfinder.com in February 2005. What was the nature and frequency of your usage of the site?
11. On 16/ 05/ 08, you wrote to Mira Stollbach that you ‘couldn’t wait’ to attend her wedding that summer, but then in an email to Justine on June 2nd of that same year, wrote that you ‘hate fucking weddings’. Can you explain?
The book is not perfect, but I got very caught up in the story of Tess and Leila, who were both superb, real characters. The structure had been carefully worked out, and you just really wanted to know what was going on, as well as wanting to shout at Leila ‘Do not go and meet Connor’ – she has been communicating (like Cyrano de Bergerac) with one of Tess’s old boyfriends. Any book that makes me want to shout advice gets high marks.
The book worked for me on three completely different levels: both Tess and Leila were compelling and strangely convincing, the story was a tense page-turner, and the online/social media aspect was fascinating and original. An absolute cracker.
The picture comes from Wikimedia Commons. ‘Vintage Ossie’ is Ossie Clark – his picture turned up recently on the blog, one of his dresses a while back.