If you pick up Christine Mangan’s debut novel Tangerine, expecting to be thrust into the heady cultural melting pot of 1950s Tangiers, you’d be sadly disappointed.
The bustle of the souks, the oppressive heat and humidity and the chaos of the narrow streets are all in evidence. But Mangan’s descriptions tend to the general, rather than the specific so we never get far under the skin of her location.
“I found the souks electrifying”, says one of the two principal characters on her first exploration of the city. “The labyrinthine curve of them: dark and packed, with vendors that stood behind stalls or sat on the floor, their bags and buckets of wares splayed out before them. ” Typical of the scene setting elements of this novel. those sentences tell me nothing about the smells or sounds of the place. I can get just as much a feel for Tangiers from a guide book.
Equally missing is the historical context. The novel’s action takes place in 1956 as Morocco is about to gain its independence and there is unrest in the streets. Yet this is barely mentioned. Passing comments like” “It appears Tangier is done. At least how we know it” and “The natives are getting restless, my dear.” are about as much as we get.
For a novel that is billed as an atmospheric psychological thriller, that lack of any genuine atmosphere is a major drawback.
Did the psychological thriller dimension work any better?
The plot was promising. Tangerine is the story of two women who became friends while sharing a college room in Vermont. They drifted apart for reasons that are only hinted at initially. They meet up again in Tangiers.
Alice Shipley was orphaned as a youngster when her parents died in a house fire. The trauma left her with fragile and uncertain. She married John, who whisked her off to Tangiers where he has an undefined government job. He relishes the city but she finds Tangiers a frightening prospect, preferring to stay in their cool apartment.
An unexpected and unannounced visitor arrives one day. It’s her old college friend Lucy Mason who’s given up her job for a New York publisher and decided to travel, or so she tells Alice. What she doesn’t reveal is her plan to get Alice away from her husband so the two girls can embark on the adventures they’d imagined when they were college room mates.
From the beginning, it’s clear that all is not well in this relationship. Heavy foreshadowing in the early chapters signal that the tension between Alice and Lucy has its origins on “that terrible night” when something happened “in the cold, wintry Green Mountains of Vermont”.
Through alternating chapters in which each woman tells their story, we discover why the friends parted company and why Alice is not thrilled to find Lucy on her doorstep. But are either of them reliable narrators? Lucy is an anxious woman, prone to experiencing “strange wispy apparitions” while Lucy is clearly an arch manipulator whose interest in Alice borders on the obsessive.
The premise has potential but the sinister element of the predatory woman and her nervous, vulnerable prey doesn’t materialise. The publisher’s blurb compares Tangerine with Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. But Christine Mangan lacks the literary skill to emulate the suspense and tension of the former or create a sympathetic anti-hero on a par with Ripley. To suggest otherwise is frankly laughable.
That doesn’t mean I thought Tangerine was a bad novel. If I had, I wouldn’t have read to the end. But it’s not going to be one I remember.
Tangerine by Christine Mangan: Footnotes
Born in Michigan, Mangan has a PhD in English from University College Dublin, where her thesis focused on 18th-century Gothic literature.
Tangerine, published by Little Brown imprint of Harper Collins, in 2018 was her debut novel. was the subject of a bidding war in the US, where Harper Collins bought it for a reported $1.1 million. It has since been optioned for film by George Clooney’s production company, with Scarlett Johansson billed as the star.
Her second novel Palace of the Drowned, which is set in Venice, was published by Flatiron Books in the USA in June 2021.