Reviewed by Annabel
They say that in Tangier, the local hustlers have clocked all the new arrivals within hours – this is what I was told when I visited Tangier in the 1980s. Every day we stepped outside our hotel, we were met by young men eager to show us the city – via their uncle’s carpet shops. ‘Twas ever thus, I imagine, and it’s certainly the case in this debut novel set partially in Tangier in the mid-1950s.
Tangier is only separated from Spain by the fourteen miles of the Straits of Gibraltar, and Tangerine begins with a body, washing up on the Spanish side before introducing us to the two women whose story this is.
Alice and Lucy had roomed together at an exclusive college for girls in Vermont, becoming close friends. However, Alice meets Tom from the nearby boys’ college, and the relationship between her and Lucy, as often happens in real life, becomes increasingly strained. Eventually, the girls fall out and go their separate ways after an ‘accident’, the details of which we’ll only find out much later.
Alice, who is British, returns to England to live with her Aunt Maude, and within a year or so ends up marrying John, to her own surprise. They move to Tangier, where they live on her allowance and John does, well, something. Alice doesn’t take to Tangier though, the change is rather too much for her, knowing no-one, and she becomes increasingly scared of going out on her own. One day there is a knock on the door:
“Alice,” I said, not raising my voice, revelling, just for a moment, in the sound of her name. “It’s me.”
She was far enough away that I couldn’t be certain, but I thought I heard a sharp intake of breath, and I struggled then, to contain my delight, pleased to find that I had managed to surprise her. “Well?” I finally asked, raising my voice just a bit. “Do I have to scale the wall?”
The alarm bells start clanging straight away, don’t they, and this is just twenty-five pages in.
The story unfolds in the two parallel timelines which roughly alternate – the girls at college, and later in Tangier. The narration also alternates between Alice and Lucy, I sometimes had to flip back to the chapter’s first page to remind myself whose turn it was as the twists and turns begin to mount up.
Right from the start, you know there’s something off between the two young women. The parallels between Tangerine and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley and The Two Faces of January is perhaps inevitable given the period and location. The first person narration by the two women gives a different feel though; I hesitate to mention Gone Girl, but there’s a similar knowingness meets fish out of water to their narration. That said, I enjoyed all the twists and turns even though many were well telegraphed, but this helps to build the suspense towards the climax.
Given my little experience of this city, I wasn’t totally convinced about the freedom that Lucy seemed to experience in Tangier, but maybe it was less in your face back in the 1950s. Lucy’s character felt rather too modern for the 1950s setting. She is evidently a strong woman, brazen even, going out by herself, wearing trousers (something Alice would never do). She can fend off the ‘mosquitoes’ as the hustlers are characterised, but one of them, Joseph, is rather persistent:
“Morocco is your home.” He said the words slowly, watching my face closely as he spoke. “Yes, it is yours. You are a Tangierine now.”
He pronounced it tangerine, like the fruit. I smiled, letting the thought settle. Morocco was mine. And it could be, I reasoned. After all, what did I have to return to?
Tangier itself is a minor character in the novel, only coming to life intermittently. I’d have liked more of that crossroads edge that the city has, but it’s the toxic relationship between the two women that’s at the heart of this book. It may be slightly in thrall to Highsmith, but I didn’t mind that, for there was much to enjoy in Tangerine. And, I gather, George Clooney is producing it on the big screen with Scarlett Johanssen leading – I’ll look forward to with anticipation.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Christine Mangan, Tangerine (Little, Brown, 2018). 978-1408709993, 320pp., hardback.
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