Nicky Pellegrino ponders the internet's social boundaries.
Gloriously creepy is the only way to describe Londoner Lottie Moggach's debut novel, Kiss Me First (Picador). It's a piece of fiction that could only have been written right now, at this point in the life of the internet, as a younger generation grow accustomed to having much of their meaningful human contact online. In a way, it's a fairly grim vision of how that may affect them.
Leila is an isolated young woman. Her mother has died and she's living alone in a grim flat in a part of London where she knows no one. She has more than 70 friends on Facebook, none in real life. But Leila doesn't mind being by herself. She works at home as a software tester and spends her free time online playing World of Warcraft or posting her thoughts on a philosophy site called Red Pill.
It is through Red Pill that Leila makes contact with the charismatic, mysterious Adrian Dervish. He flatters her by elevating her to the status of Elite Thinker on his website then, in a face-to-face meeting, puts a proposal to her. Would she be prepared to help someone commit suicide? Not by providing pills or in any way doing the deed but by continuing their online life beyond death so friends and family won't know what's happened and can be spared immediate grief.
Okay, so not very likely, but if the reader can put that aside, Moggach rewards them with an intriguing, utterly gripping read.
Tess, the girl who wants to die, is everything Leila is not - pretty, sexy and popular. But she is also bipolar, veering from manic highs to depression. Counselling hasn't helped and drugs make her feel only half alive. She doesn't want to go on.
To assume her online identity Leila must know everything possible about Tess. It becomes her fulltime job to build a profile, poring over her photographs, reading her emails, talking via Skype. Soon she is closer to her than she is to anyone else, even though they have never met.
Leila is eccentric all right, super-brainy, cold, out of step with the world, tuned out to other people's feelings. But as she "becomes" Tess it changes her in ways she hadn't expected.
Most of us will have met someone a bit like Leila. The internet has opened a whole new world for these super-bright, socially awkward people but also made them more vulnerable and Moggach's novel is an exploration of the possibilities for disaster. She examines the way we live online, the fake versions of ourselves we present, the slipperiness and unreliability of identity.
Since she is the daughter of writer Deborah Moggach (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), the author has a literary pedigree but her style is quite different. This is intense, darkly humorous fiction with a finger right on the pulse of the internet age. It disturbs and entertains in equal measure.