Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

a review by Nalini Haynes

Kiss Me First is a first novel from Lottie Moggach.

I’m currently proof-reading this review. Again.

I’m still not happy with it as I feel my content is too negatively focused, but if I talk too much about why this novel was a riveting read, I’ll spoil the story. I have decided to publish this review after having written and edited it repeatedly over the course of a week. I guess the fact that Kiss Me First is hard to pin down and difficult to review is, in itself, a high recommendation.

The opening scene: Tess in tears in front of an online camera, reconsidering previous plans to suicide while talking to an unseen nameless first person point of view character. Cut to Leila, the first person point of view character, camping in Spain while searching for Tess after the date scheduled for Tess’s suicide.

 Gradually the story unfolds: Leila becomes socially isolated after her mother’s decline and death. Still grieving, Leila is enlisted to help Tess, who wants to commit suicide without upsetting her loved ones. Leila relates to this, especially after suffering through her mother’s illness and death. Adrian engages Leila to impersonate Tess online, and Tess pretends to move overseas. The story delves into the personalities of both women; as Leila investigates Tess to aid her posthumous impersonation, facets of Tess’s bipolar disorder (called ‘manic depression’ in the novel) and Leila’s own character are profiled in startling detail.

I had a sense of going down the rabbit hole with this novel; not in the sense that Leila went down the rabbit hole, but that I had to go down the rabbit hole into Leila’s bizarre world. Throughout Kiss Me First I became steadily more disturbed as the plot developed – the exploring of mental health issues, stalking and unusual behaviour led me to anticipate a revelation that Leila, like Tess, was significantly ‘different’ from other people. I considered that the revelation of mental illness or other neurological differences in Leila would be the ultimate irony and parallelism to balance Tess.

[Spoilers, sweetie]

This was not to be. The author never mentions that Leila has any form of mental illness, nor other neurological differences like autism. To the contrary, Leila’s apparent growth as a character reinforces her differences as strengths. Her mother’s illness and death coupled with Leila’s philosophical beliefs, provide deep insight into Leila’s character and the human condition.

It appears that Leila was co-dependent with her mother although this was not to an abusive extent as indicated by mother and daughter realising Leila hadn’t been out for ages and agreeing Leila would attend an open party advertised on Facebook. Leila also made choices to care for her mum during her mum’s illness and to stay with her as much as possible in the full knowledge that their time was limited. Leila’s mum seemed to have a good relationship with Leila and cared for her in spite of inconsistencies; what relationship is completely consistent?

It seemed Leila’s pre-novel isolation was attributed to fulfilling the basement-dwelling shut-in stereotype with which geeks have been unfairly tarred. Moggach clearly states Leila read science fiction and fantasy and played World of Warcraft obsessively before she was encouraged to expand her interests to a website discussing philosophy; in spite of an intelligent, enquiring mind, apparently Leila lacked motivation for intellectual pursuits until she left her preferred genre behind.

This smacks of prejudice and a lack of research. No mention was made of a vibrant online SF culture, the breadth of reading required to fully appreciate high-level SF including discussion – within novels and within online culture – regarding philosophy and ethics, with which Leila is fascinated. Instead Leila has to leave her preferred genre to engage in philosophical and ethical discussion. However, the ease with which Leila changes through first engaging with the philosophical website then impersonating Tess and eventually moving on after the resulting debacle, strongly implies a flexible individual who only needed engagement with issues and others to help her to change.

[Spoilers end]

Bizarrely, a central character who appears obsessed with science fiction, fantasy, philosophy and ethics, appears to only have occasional references to Lord of the Rings in her flat and her internal monologue. Obviously the author watched Lord of the Rings to decide Leila would acquire the handle Shadowfax and for this excellent description of young women entering a shopping mall:

“…wave after wave of identical-looking young women, streaming in like orcs going in to battle…” (p 258)

However other research is thin on the ground. For example, apparently Leila raised an avatar to level 60 in World of Warcraft then joined a raiding party. In 2011. Also whether she shared gold collected in raids with others in her raiding party was allegedly a reflection of her ethics. In 2011. Seriously? It sounds like Moggach took a few tips from someone who played vanilla back in the day and didn’t bother to cross-check her facts. Another WoW mistake was saying “I only had 48 minutes… barely enough time to get my avatar into his armour.” WOW. Just – WOW. Pardon the pun. I don’t think Moggach meant this as comedy because the rest of the novel was very serious.

Leila was apparently obese but, as she indignantly declares late in the novel, she’s only a size 16: that’s not hugely socially difficult. Leila apparently doesn’t eat vegetables, her mother didn’t force the issue except three times a year when they visited Leila’s grandmother. Apparently Leila doesn’t suffer from related health issues either. None of this is explained. As one who enjoys rabbit food I wanted some kind of explanation for Leila’s aberrant behaviour.

It seems the author has heard of but hasn’t really used Skype as she talks about an audio-only phone call where both parties have agreed not to do video calls, but mid-call one person switches on her camera so the other can see her. She also referred to a Podcast that apparently had video although the podcaster needed to keep a low profile.  I believe it’s easier to slide factual errors past your readership when your story is set in another era, on another world or at least in a remarkably different country. I found these errors kept breaking that contract to suspend disbelief.

Kiss Me First is a compelling chilling read. You might have noticed that I neither lost interest nor fell asleep as I was sufficiently engaged to even take notes. I felt Moggach’s stereotyping was unjustified but otherwise she created a fairly plausible story. The technological errors are fairly minor; most people probably wouldn’t even notice.
[Points to website and considerable regular hours online engaging with podcasts and software like Skype.] This book got my heart pumping, waiting for a resolution. As with many literary novels, it wasn’t the outcome I expected. I give Kiss Me First four stars. An excellent first outing for Lottie Moggach; she’s an author to watch.