“What are you whoring the poor child out for tonight? A crate of own-brand baked beans, a hotel break in Kilrush?” The embittered husband of an Irish influencer asks his wife about her work plans for the day. They include, over the course of the novel, selling a wholly fabricated version of a perfect family life to thousands of young women eager to believe the fairytale.
What does it say about our culture that so many people live through their phones, watching other people’s lives with feelings that range at best to aspirational and at worst to envy, anxiety and despair? This is a fundamental question of Sophie White’s entertaining and timely debut novel, Filter This.
White is a journalist with a weekly column for Sunday Independent's Life magazine. Living in Dublin with her young family, she's also known for her podcasts Mother of Pod and The Creep Dive, which tap into the Irish zeitgeist with humour and critical distance. Both of these qualities come through in her novel, though Filter This doesn't quite reach the level of sophistication seen from masters of the form such as Marian Keyes, or indeed the fluid, bright prose of emerging voices like Eithne Shortall or Dawn O'Porter. In White's novel, the characterisation of many within the Insta-world veers more towards caricature, a writing style that is, ironically, not unlike the column on stereotypical Irish personalities that used to feature in Life magazine.
Readers will forgive White for this, not least because the world she profiles lends itself so readily to caricature, but more importantly because she has crafted two believable heroines, whose stories complement each other in various clever ways. The Insta wife from the opening paragraph is Shelly Divine, an actress on an Irish soap (called, in a rather lame joke, Dirty Auld Town) whose main job in recent years is cultivating her life online for thousands of followers.
The most moving part of the novel centres around Ali's relationship with her parents... Her visits to the nursing home are brutally sad and show Ali at her most vulnerable
On Instagram, Shelly is a clean-eating, baby-loving, never-cursing wonderwoman who juggles career and motherhood and looking perfect without a care in the world. The reality is obviously different. A marriage on the brink, an unfulfilling acting career and, most interestingly, a struggle with motherhood that is revealed in telling detail: "Every time one of the other pregos earnestly professed her love for her unborn child or expressed horror at the thought of ever subjecting said child to such corporal abuses as a fish finger, Shelly felt close to mutiny. They're very easy to love 'in theory', she wanted to scream."
The huge irony of the novel is that Shelly is the heroine out in front, an idol for the book’s second narrator Ali Jones. In her mid-20s, Ali is an aspiring playwright who works as a runner on Dirty Auld Town and spends much of the rest of her life stuck in her phone, checking how many followers and likes she’s gotten on social media. When Ali gets catapulted (in both meanings of the word) to Insta fame over night in a clever and compelling plot twist, we watch as her actions become increasingly erratic and morally compromised. Details that make this storyline sing are Ali’s penchant for self-destructive behaviour, her new relationship with likeable Sam, and her enduring friendship with school friend Liv, a straight-talking academic whose area of research says it all: “Fear and Self-Loathing in the Insta Age: A Cultural Analysis of Why a New Generation Would Rather Live a Lie than Face Reality.”
The most moving part of the novel centres around Ali’s relationship with her parents, her distant art dealer mother, and her father Miles, a former chef who has late-stage Alzheimer’s. Her visits to the nursing home are brutally sad and show Ali at her most vulnerable: “She held the cool, dry hands of her father, which was indescribably hard to do for some reason, like holding something unbearably hot.”
White is a sharp and funny commentator on everything from media events “where everyone shouted in each other’s faces about how busy they were while sipping champagne from mini bottles through a straw” to the highs and lows of online dating: “She thought of Tinder as a kind of orgasm dispenser. (‘It’s like a servicing for your vagina!’)” The seediness of the influencer life comes through in lurid detail – “She couldn’t blame Shelly for cashing in on that sweet baby dollar” – as do the twinned dangers of envy and comparison for those who wish to emulate this so-called perfect existence: “Even the light in Shelly’s world looked cleaner.”
The ending of the book feels rushed and cobbled together – plotlines left dangling, conflicts unresolved – though a subsequent note goes some way to explaining: a sequel is imminent. For her rich depiction of an “Insta-grim” world, White herself will no doubt have plenty of followers.