Tangerine by Christine Mangan

Published by Little, Brown

It’s a familiar story. Two friends, inseparable at school or in college or even during a brief but intense summer friendship lose contact after they part, their relationship eventually becoming a fond but hazy memory. Alice is a delicate Englishwoman in Tangier, a whirlwind marriage having brought her there on the coattails of her new, vivacious husband who is eager to soak up the culture afforded them by his position in an un-named British Government department. To say Alice is surprised when her American college room-mate Lucy appears one day on her apartment building doorstep is an understatement – their parting was sudden, a year before, the circumstances why they became estranged as yet unknown.

Early in Tangerine Alice comments on how she and her husband came to find themselves in Tangier, in the mid-1950s. His friend “had been the one to convince John to come to Tangier in the first place, plying his friend with tales of the country: its beauty, its lawlessness, until John was half in love with a place he’s never seen”. Writer Christine Mangan weaves a similar yarn for her readers right from the offset, with beautifully Tangerinecaptured descriptions of the markets, the heat, the architecture, the dress and the deeper, darker rumblings under the surface, not only of an upcoming uprising threatening the foreign settlers comfortable, ‘exotic’ life in Morocco but of the personal demons lurking within her characters.

The narration is taken up in turn by Alice and then Lucy, alternating with each chapter. At first I found their voices somewhat indistinguishable, with each conveying the slightly old-fashioned, detached narration, the type you’d find in a mystery story that’s concentration is more on pushing the story along rather than exploring character development. But as the tale unfurls the divide between the two women widens, their voices developing distinct characteristics. Which is all the more remarkable considering that one of the women has a much more fervid reason for being in Tangier than the other.

It’s an unsettling turn when one of your narrators, who you’ve been on a journey with, turns out to be not only unreliable, but rather unhinged. Both women think back over shared experiences during their college days and the differences in motivation, in points-of-view are really interestingly communicated. Their stories correspond but the feelings behind them differ greatly. It’s a great observation of youthful relationships and naivety, but it’s not a study. Tangerine is a dark and twisted tale of mystery, murder and devastating manipulation

If there ever was a successor to Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley it’s Tangerine. Mangan’s villain is more than just a woman driven insane by jealousy, she’s a complicated, devilishly intelligent yet emotionally immature character who, on deciding whether to give in to the dark side, weighs up her options and settles on her decision not by madness but by shrewd selfishness and overflated sense of entitlement. Not only that, but the setting of Morocco is inspired – two women in a foreign country, one who takes to it like a duck does to water and the other as adrift in grief, and what is probably undiagnosed PTSD, there as she would be anywhere else.

A sub-plot, that eventually winds its way flawlessly into the main plot, revolves around Lucy and her inter-actions with a local confidence trickster known as Joseph, or Youssef. Their time together, apart from driving the story to its thrilling end, is something of a device to show off Tangier and its own unique charm; the characters, the atmosphere, the divide between classes both local and blown in from the continent. However, as with many stories set on foreign soil with privileged people from England or America at the forefront the plight of the people native to the country in which they’re in takes a definitive back seat. Even the title, Tangerine, refers to a person of the city, but in this case it’s assigned to the women at the heart of the story. It’s not perfect but Tangerine is an entertaining and ultimately devastating read that builds to a tantalisingly drawn-out crescendo that begs for a follow-up.

First published in The Tuam Herald on May 9th, 2018

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