With its Hitchcockian cover and an atmospheric prologue that imagines a man's bird-pecked body recovered from the sea, Tangerine lures the reader into its story with the promise of being every publisher's dream – the literary thriller. Christine Mangan's 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.
It is huge hype for a debut to live up to, and sadly Tangerine cannot handle the weight. Compared by its publishers to Gone Girl and The Secret History, it lacks the suspense of the former and the literary ability of the superior Donna Tartt. It is not by any stretch a poor novel, rather a fairly decent first-time offering whose ingredients have proved too tempting for publishers hoping for a bestseller.
The recipe is as follows: take one orphaned teenager, send her to boarding school in Vermont, have her strike up an intense friendship with another orphaned teenager, add a mysterious tragedy, skip forward a few years to where orphan one is living in confinement, “trying hard not to think while secretly thinking as hard as I can”, as she attempts to set down her tale.
There are a number of elements that elevate Mangan’s story from the above, most obviously the novel’s primary setting in 1950s Tangier where Alice (orphan one) has relocated on the whim of her new husband John. Unhappily married and confined to a gloomy house in a foreign country, Alice should welcome the arrival of Lucy (orphan two), her old roommate at Bennington. From the beginning, however, Mangan establishes that all is not well between the girls. In alternate first-person chapters, they each fill in the mystery of their boarding school years, while simultaneously negotiating the strained current climate of their friendship.
This is echoed in the surrounding landscape, with Morocco on the cusp of independence, though the political backdrop is largely peripheral. Mangan evokes the place and time with ease, "the impressive Rif women, adorned in their bright colours that caught and fought for attention".
Through Lucy’s roaming in the busy medina, the city and culture come to life: the men that hover like “mosquitos” around her; piping-hot mint tea in a glass mug with no handles; the brothels run by Frenchwomen “who had decided to leave behind a life of selling their own bodies in order to sell another’s”; the custom of ululation, “a sharp, distinctive wail cut through the night – the noise, I knew, that the women in Tangier made in celebration”; the name the locals give foreigners, which in turn informs the novel’s title.
The comparisons are heavy-handed at times. As Alice tries to break free of her controlling husband, her staunch but snobbish aunt and her manipulative friend Lucy, Tangier is doing likewise from the empire. As Lucy overlooks the point where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean merge, she notes the “strange layering that seemed to be commonplace in Tangier”.
Born in Michigan, Mangan has a PhD in English from University College Dublin, where her thesis focused on 18th-century Gothic literature. Her debut has overtones of the novels of Graham Greene, whose displaced female characters flounder in the colonies. More obviously it pays homage to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca in tone and atmosphere, with Alice working well as the vulnerable narrator whose laconic, traumatised voice captivates in early chapters.
But while the second Mrs de Winter pales in comparison to the ghost of her predecessor, Mangan struggles to create that same contrast between the personalities of Alice and Lucy. Perhaps a feature of using first-person narratives for both, the voices are different more by circumstance and action rather than a distinct style.
Skill for depiction
Although this develops in later chapters, Lucy needs to be creepier, less likeable from the off. The novel also falls into the trap of trying to do too much, which leads to plenty of telling. The world of Bennington is barely created, with a fleeting narrative about a former fiancée having little emotional impact. Back in Morocco, subplots involving local girl Sabine and a vividly drawn local man, Youssef, are little more than devices to further the main narrative. There are too few scenes in the novel, which is a shame as a trip that Alice and Lucy take to Chefchaouen to escape the frenzied climate of Tangier show Mangan’s obvious skill for depiction.
The suspense ramps up in the final quarter with an unoriginal identity theft plot, but it is not enough to compensate for an earlier clunky reveal. “Things were changing, shifting, and Tangier – all of us – would never be the same again,” says Lucy towards the end. It is a line that reflects the main problem with a book whose admirably sinister storyline is told rather than experienced.