Tangerine by Christine Mangan (2018)

Tangerine is one of those novels that got quite a lot of hype when it first came out, and again when it was released in paperback. This usually means that I would avoid it for fear of disappointment/conventionality, but the premise of this one really intrigued me. Ostensibly it’s a story about two friends, separated by a mysterious accident, and and then one of them turns up on the other’s doorstep a year later. Cue drama. This could be a bit formulaic, but Mangan does well to develop both her central characters enough so that they and crucially their relationship feel convincing to the reader. This is chiefly achieved by the two of them taking turns to narrate a chapter each, so we get to see things from both sides – and as the novel progresses we see the differences in their points of view and memories of certain events.

image: waterstones.com

When Lucy arrives from the US at Alice’s flat in Tangier, the tension between them is a bit of a mystery, and this is the main thing that draws you in – wanting to know what happened when they last saw each other a year before that drove them apart. It’s easy for mystery alone to wear thin, but luckily their relationship is strange enough for us to want to know more about it as a whole rather than just the curious accident. Complicating things further is Alice’s arrogant husband John, the reason she is in Tangier. He and Lucy are instantly at odds – he is suspicious of her because of her random appearance, and in turn she is jealous of his closeness to her former best friend. Both see the other as imposing on their own relationship with Alice, threatening the balance. In a way you can see both of their points of view, given that they’ve never met, and especially because Lucy fails to explain why she has suddenly turned up and re-entered Alice’s life. 

The dual narratives soon reveal that Alice and Lucy have quite different interpretations of their friendship and exactly why it ended abruptly the year before – and whether or not it should be resurrected. I found the dynamics of their relationship particularly interesting and well-executed, especially as I have personally had a couple of very tricky female friends in the past that played games and competed with me, whether or not I realised it at the time. Unfortunately for Alice, Lucy’s games are not just psychological or under the surface, but exaggerated and with real lasting effects. Throughout both their memories and in the present we see her manipulating Alice and gaslighting her, often outright lying, to make her think she’s either crazy or stupid, as well as taking drastic action when she becomes desperate.

Both women have complicated feelings about one another. While Alice is wary of Lucy in the present, she is held back by how special and meaningful their friendship once was for her – Lucy was a confidant, a companion, and a comfort when they were both away from home at university. Alice is still drawn to her through these memories, remembering that she can make her feel safe and happy. Lucy on the other hand has much more complex feelings. She obviously loves Alice, but in an obsessive way that means she thinks she needs to control or protect her, regardless of what Alice actually says or does. Lucy crosses over into thinking she knows Alice and what she wants better than she does herself. She also treads the line of being so obsessed by Alice that she almost wants to be her.

All of this is explored both in flashbacks and in the present story in Tangier, and I enjoyed the way Mangan teased out the story from both of her narrators. Both Alice and Lucy’s behaviour in the present makes more and more sense as we see more of their time together at university and how their relationship has evolved. The setting of their reunion in Tangier is at first evocative and helps to demonstrate the separation of their past at university in New England, with their present in the hot Moroccan city that feels so alien to them both (though Lucy soon starts to enjoy this in a way that Alice simply cannot). But after a while the descriptions of the city get a bit same-y and it becomes less and less vivid to the reader. Likewise the character of Youssef is thrown in to add some ‘local colour’ and serve a specific purpose in the plot as it thickens, but he too feels a little unreal and underdeveloped. Only Alice and Lucy really remain in focus as you go on, though perhaps this is the point.

The last third of the book is where things pick up and the plot starts to really happen, and while this was exciting, it felt a little rushed, as if the first two thirds of the book were too slow. There were moments when I was a little incredulous as the twists became more and more far-fetched and I wasn’t sure I really bought into them. I still enjoyed the overall effect though, and I was surprised by the ending – which is always a good thing.

Tangerine stuck with me immediately after I finished it, another good sign, and I wondered what Mangan was trying to say or achieve with this novel. It is an enjoyable semi-thriller almost completely lacking in morals, that asks the reader to consider whether we ever really know anyone, even those closest to us, and how easily we can make mistakes or misjudge people and situations. The importance of trust and genuine love is laid bare, as these things barely exist between any of the characters. It’s a memorable novel that I think will appeal to a wide range of readers, though I’m not sure it quite lives up the Daphne du Maurier/Donna Tartt/Patricia Highsmith accolades it has garnered so far.

*

Published by Abacus, an imprint of Little Brown in 2018. I read the 2019 paperback, shown above.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

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