read by Imogen Church
For once, believe the hype. This much-lauded debut thriller captures a startling and disturbing aspect of the internet zeitgeist and provides a dark and twisted commentary on the Facebook generation.
Leila is persuaded by the moderator of a pseudo-philosophical website to assist in a ‘project’ – the suicide of Tess, a woman she has never met. Leila must adopt Tess’s persona, learn about her life, her tastes, the way she writes and thinks – get into her head, under her skin. Leila must impersonate Tess, become Tess, so that Tess can, without fuss, without recriminations, quietly shuffle off this mortal coil.
But the two women could not be more different. Leila, grieving over her mother’s recent death, is inexperienced, poorly educated, isolated and friendless. She is a size 16, lives in a cheerless flat above an Indian restaurant in south-east London, and has never been kissed. Tess has lived, and loved, and travelled. She is articulate, witty, clever. She has refined tastes, smart friends and good looks. Hers is the tag ‘kiss me first’: whatever that might mean.
Leila takes her work seriously, and devotes herself full time to ‘being Tess’. Having taken over Tess’s email account, she carries on online conversations with some of Tess’s contacts. It is easy to lie online. And she’s good. She has studied hard and is convinced she has cloned Tess’s style and wit. But Tess’s mother isn’t so easily fooled, and Leila’s encounter with her is a waste land of pain. Then Leila starts to believe that one of Tess’s former boyfriends will fall in love with her when they meet – that he will accept that Tess is no more and that Leila can take her place as virtual Tess. She engineers meetings, only to witness that he has been creating his own virtual life online. In reality, he hasn’t separated from the girl he married after Tess broke up with him. But Leila hasn’t prepared herself for the crippling shock of his anger and revulsion when she finally comes out to him.
And, in the end, who can say what Tess was escaping from. Nor, of course, whether she went through with her part of the arrangement.
Not to be missed, Kiss Me First is so much more than the tale it tells. And the audiobook imparts the fiction with even more impact than the printed page. Imogen Church is Leila. And you will believe her every word.
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