Mangan's novel, promoted as a Hitchcockian literary mystery, tracks a woman who finds herself in too deep with someone she once believed was harmless. A thoughtful and unsettling account of a relationship based on mutual weakness, need, and neurosis, Tangerine is cleverly told in two narrative voices: Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason. We are left to form our own conclusions regarding the truth about the characters' motivations. A decidedly ominous sensibility lies beneath the story's elegant 1950s' reserve. For much of the novel, Tangier appears as a fever dream, a sparkling mirage, an exotic backdrop to Mangan's tale of murder and revenge.
Alice Shipley can literally smell the exoticism of Tangier when she arrives fresh from Aunt Maude's guardianship and a fractured past as a student at Bennington College, Vermont. Alice--lonely and rather shy--is forgiving to a fault. In desperation, she marries handsome John McAllister. But has John married Alice for her money? Through a hazy fog, Alice determines to shut her eyes to her past and open them on the blazing sun of Tangier and to the adventure that John promises. While John wants to experience the "real Tangier" and explore its secrets on his own, Alice just wants to be able to sit in cafés and try to rewrite her future in this hot, dusty city which her husband loves at first sight but which continues to elude her.
Alice remains ensconced inside their rented apartment. Aware of a sensation of always being watched, she seems to become her own captor and captive. Everything changes when old friend Lucy arrives, ostensibly to reconnect with Alice as any loving friend would do. Lucy is buoyed by the promise of the unknown, "of something infinitely deeper, richer." She thinks of Alice "somewhere within the beating pulse of the city." Walking the streets of Tangier, Lucy doesn't want to appear at Alice's doorstep with her stockings torn and her hair a mess. Perhaps it's too much to hope for that things would "simply revert back to how they had once been, before that terrible night."
Mangan details the closeness of Alice and Lucy's friendship, cemented at Bennington--a place that once kept them close but then drove them apart. There's history here, and a quiet animosity tied to secrets. Lucy is quite self-aware and intelligent, but she's also lonely and defensively bitter. She's obviously kidding herself at the adventures she still wants to have with Alice in Paris, Budapest, and all the other places that had once seemed so distant and impossible. Plagued by a constant sense of danger, Lucy is haunted by what transpired at Bennington, a place that Mangan juxtaposes with Tangier's weighted history, "a city of transformation" that shifts and alters in order to survive.
The heat pulses, the sun presses down. Lucy's arrival sets in motion a series of events that churn and roil. Alice invites Lucy to stay, but Lucy feels a sharp sense of menace with John. Alice appears strangely altered from the girl who had greeted Lucy earlier, a ghost of her former self. Ignoring Tangier's growing unrest--the city on the cusp of independence--Lucy confides to an increasingly tense Alice that she has no intention of leaving anytime soon. When the three attend a jazz club as a way to welcome Lucy properly to Tangier, Lucy notices Alice's inner turmoil. Alice wonders for one mad moment if she has summoned Lucy. Bathed in the early morning heat, the dusty alleyways of Tangier pulse and throb around Alice, Lucy, and John: there's "a safety and a danger all at once."
Far from the green mountains of Vermont, Mangan unfurls a series of violent events that serve as the pretext for a journey into the depth of self and the darkness of the human condition. Is Tangerine a shadowy tale of lesbian obsession? It certainly boasts a veneer of same-sex attraction along with a heavy dose of obsession that resembles the gloom of Paul Bowles and the dark poetry of Laurence Osborne. Lucy has convinced herself that she's in love with Alice--indeed, her entire self-worth hinges on keeping Alice. Such is Alice's need to escape from Lucy that her life begins to falls apart around her. Alice and Lucy have tried to escape their past together, but they have arrived in a land that will force them, by its harshness and beauty, to look more closely at themselves and each other.
John's enduring need to be in the spotlight and to be noticed by those around him ultimately leads to his downfall. At Café Hafa, Lucy is drawn to Youssef, a petty criminal who helps her carry out her menacing scheme. Aunt Maude ignores Alice's frantic missives, unwilling to see Lucy's deviousness. Unable to cope in her misery, Alice's sanity slowly slips though her fingers. Although some readers will find the noir elements cliched, I thought Mangan's provocative, disquieting story of a sinister friendship dimmed by Tangier's dust and sand as mysterious and dream-like as the city itself.