By Christine Mangan
308 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins. $26.99.
Christine Mangan’s camera-ready first novel, “Tangerine,” opens with three men hauling a corpse — pecked by magpies and missing its eyes — from the sea. Whose body is this, and how did it end up in the water? In alternating chapters, two female narrators provide the long, lurid and psychologically complex answer. Neither woman is necessarily trustworthy, a trait they share with the unreliable female narrators of recent best sellers like “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” Like those novels, “Tangerine” is on track to become a film, with Scarlett Johansson tentatively attached to star.
Mangan draws her narrators with broad strokes, using classic Hollywood color coding. Alice Shipley is pale, rich and emotionally fragile. She wears lace gloves and pearls. Lucy Mason is dark, voluptuous and worldly. She smokes. They meet on their first day at Bennington College in the mid-1950s and develop one of those possessive, erotically charged friendships that never seem to end well. The two young women experience — or perhaps instigate — an unspecified tragedy. Then Alice drops out of school, marries and flees to Tangier with her caddish new husband, John, to escape the traumatic memory, and perhaps Lucy as well. Soon, though, Lucy turns up unannounced at Alice’s Tangier flat. Alice’s response: “I thought of the few works of Shakespeare I knew and the line that frequently rattled in my brain — what’s past is prologue.”
But what exactly is that past? As Lucy and Alice re-establish a volatile intimacy over sugary mint tea in sweltering Tangier cafes, via flashback we gradually learn the details of that earlier mystery, which unfolds in frosty Vermont. It’s as if Mangan couldn’t decide whether to write a homage to Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” or a sun-drenched novel of dissolute Westerners abroad in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith and Paul Bowles, so she tried to do both. She mostly succeeds.
Mangan openly acknowledges the influence of Bowles on “Tangerine.” Lucy strikes up a friendship with a shady Moroccan artist named Youssef, who tells her: “You are unfamiliar with Bowles, I see. You must read him, if you want to understand this place.” Youssef claims to know the novelist, who lived in Tangier and wrote about Westerners who lose their moral compasses, and sometimes themselves, in North Africa. The “Tangerine” of the title refers to a native of the Moroccan city, and it seems inevitable that one or both of the narrators will lose herself there. And at some point, that corpse will end up in the water.
Mangan, who has a doctorate in English, wrote her dissertation on 18th-century Gothic literature and she knows all the notes to hit to create lush, sinister atmosphere and to prolong suspense. Unfortunately, she hits them all, and she hits them a little too hard. Both narrators periodically lapse into the language of academia, bluntly signaling how we should interpret the narrative rather than letting us figure it out for ourselves. Alice worries that her tone of voice is “wavering somewhere between lighthearted and serious, skirting the liminal boundaries between laughing and crying.” In 1956, a young woman in a white pillbox hat would not have talked about liminal boundaries. When Lucy refers to the “intertextuality” that once existed between her and Alice, she uses a term coined by the French semiotician Julia Kristeva a decade after the novel takes place. At times, “Tangerine” reads as if it were reverse-engineered from a scholarly paper about suspense fiction. Happily, you can write a satisfying, juicy thriller this way, if not a blazingly original one.
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