Filter This by Sophie White: Lively debut offers a biting exposé of the Insta-scene
Fiction: Filter This
Hatchette, hardback, 384 pages, €12.99
Filter This opens with an Instagram Story. An influencer with the handle @MamasMiniMadams is giving her followers a tour of her daughter's Communion party, thanking the team at @EmpowerGrooming for their help with her "intimate grooming" for the occasion, offering viewers a discount code for a paltry 5pc off at the florist, and layering filter upon filter over her young daughter's grand entrance.
Ali, a 25-year-old aspiring playwright, and her best friend Liv, a research student, are taking it all in at the kitchen table of their distinctly unphotogenic "granny house" in Dublin. They scoff at the antics on screen, but later that day, Ali is inspired to download the app and try it out for herself.
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We jump forward in time to find Ali with 9,000 followers (and a generous dose of lip filler), having pilfered tips from the mega-influencers on how to curate the most 'aspirational' social media feed.
She's set up an Insta-studio in her grotty bedroom, complete with a faux-marble-topped dressing table and enormous ring-light for optimum selfie lighting, and keeps a greying, months-old Mason jar of "proats" (protein oats) stashed in the kitchen for her delicious breakfast posts, before wolfing down stale croissants on the way to her job as a lowly production assistant on a TV soap.
While her feed is all about #selfcare and #wellness, the real Ali is drinking too much, growing further apart from her mother and scared to admit how terrified she is of her father's Alzheimer's. When she dashes off a selfie taken beside his hospital bed, her followers assume she is pregnant and Ali sees an opportunity to double her followers, rake in sponsorship money and make a name for herself.
Ali simultaneously loathes and looks up to Shelly Devine, the reigning queen of the Irish Instagram scene with 255,000 followers, a hot husband, adorable daughter and Insta-ready biscuit-and-beige decor.
Shelly is in deep: she has a social media analyst who handles all of her posts with a rigid schedule, maintaining separate accounts for daughter Georgie and husband Dan. But Dan is getting fed up of the influencer life, and Shelly is feeling increasingly uncomfortable about using her three-year-old child as a prop for promoting brands.
In her debut novel, Sophie White is sharp on the addictive qualities of Instagram, which she presents as a toxic and intoxicating festival of narcissism. Ali decries Shelly's posts as "so basic", raging, "Who even likes this? It's so vanilla," as she scrolls obsessively at all hours of the day and night.
White smartly skewers Instagram clichés, such as the purportedly casual #ootd (outfit of the day) post that requires multiple outfit changes, location scouting, a selection of 36 photos and heavy editing with the FaceFix app. A scene where Ali enlists another visitor at the hospital to take photos of her outfit is particularly agonising, while Ali's 45-minute attempt to film a seemingly effortless to-camera Instagram Story will have some readers squirming in queasy recognition.
White presupposes a general fluency in the social media lexicon that may prove trying for those unfamiliar with #sponcon, Boomerangs and flat-lays. Yet you could hardly dream of a more comprehensive cultural time capsule than Filter This. Revealing the painstaking stage management behind the influencers' accounts isn't especially revelatory, but White captures all of the thrills and the anxiety of Insta-fame. The contrast between Ali's struggles with her ailing father and her pristine feed nicely articulates how many young women turn to Instagram for self-actualisation, and instead find a psychological crutch.
Filter This also presents a fairly gutting satire of the influencer world and its breathless language of "empowerment" and "authenticity". White reserves her most savage takedown for the "mumfluencers", who sell an image of perfection while carefully editing out childcare - and even their partners, if they're not palatable enough for the grid.
The sequences pillorying the Irish social scene are some of the most horribly enjoyable, including the excruciating Glossie Awards and the Daddy Bears' Picnic, at which one of the mothers hires a stand-in to replace an absent husband.
It all comes to a head at the Holistic Mama Retreat - with its Californian healer, devoted to rebirth ceremonies, vagina-gazing and being tagged in Instagram Stories - and, in an unlikely twist, Shelly finds herself the subject of the lead story on RTÉ News.
Yet through all of their lies and deceit, Shelly and Ali remain sympathetic, and White refuses to condemn them, instead suggesting their behaviour is no less ugly than the mass judgement of their rabid followers.
In a few years' time, Filter This may be forgotten as quickly as an Instagram Story, but right now, it feels hyper-current and hugely relevant.
What remains to be said in the already-announced sequel is hard to imagine, but White will surely rack up plenty more followers of her own, eager to find out.
Read more: Filter This - exclusive extract