Book Review: Tangerine

Tangerine is a stylish, Hitchcock-esque suspense thriller that epitomises atmospheric story telling.  Its simmering tensions and chilling undercurrents are magnified by the intoxicating heat of 1950s Tangier, with the exotic seductions of the city lending a vivid, claustrophobic backdrop to the delicately nuanced characters. It’s a classy, sophisticated book that will appeal to those who read (and loved) Little Fires Everywhere.

historical fiction | suspense | thriller

Rating: 5 out of 5.

dust cover blurb

The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the horrific accident at Bennington, the two friends – once inseparable roommates – haven’t spoken in over a year. But Lucy is standing there, trying to make things right.

Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy, always fearless and independent, helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.

But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice – she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.

Author Christine Mangan | Published byLittle Brown in March 2018 | Pages 320 (hardback)

Tangier: You cry when you arrive, and you cry when you leave.

my thoughts

The heat and bustle of Tangier rises almost tangibly from the book’s pages.  It brings a sense of viewing Alice’s world through a gauzy haze; that evocative mellow glow of a lazy continental summer’s evening. Mangan has transcribed Tangier onto her pages so vividly that if you close your eyes you can feel the oppressive heat jostling you through the historical alleyways, medinas and aromatic souks; the tang of kif wafting from the hammams and cafés whilst the shouts of street sellers compete for your attention against the muezzin’s haunting call to prayer. The city quite literally ripples up from the pages, intoxicating the reader, and it’s impossible not to be drawn in.

Set in 1956, Tangerine is a story of obsession, manipulation, and discovery, which centres on a toxic friendship between Alice and Lucy.  Alice was cajoled into a loveless marriage to John McAllister by her well-meaning aunt; the lady who was appointed her guardian and carer when she was orphaned at a young age.  Despite being the husband of the book’s main character, John remains a hazy sketch in the background of the book, never really coming in to focus other than to create the impression of a cold-hearted, self-absorbed philanderer.  What John does for a living never becomes clear, but his work takes him to Tangier at a time when Morocco teeters tantalisingly close to independence. Reluctantly, Alice emigrates with her husband; her senses immediately assaulted by the sheer cacophony and clamour of Tangier’s famous medina. Rather than dwindling over time, her misgivings grow and fester to the point of self-imposed isolation, alone in their apartment whilst John indulges in the exotic seductions and temptations of the city, seemingly ignorant of his wife’s escalating fragility.

“I had realised what a hard place it could be. It was not a place where one simply arrived and belonged- no, I imagined it was a process, a trial, even an initiation of sorts, one that only the bravest survived, it was a place that inspired rebellion, a place that demanded it, of its people, of its citizens. A place where everyone had to constantly adapt, struggle, fight for what they wanted.”

An unexpected knock at the door becomes the catalyst for irrevocable change in Alice’s life.  Without invitation, Alice’s old college friend, Lucy Mason, has arrived from New York on the pretext of a short stop-over. Alice’s initial feelings of niggling disquiet are quickly smothered by Lucy’s effusive and infectious lust for life.  Seemingly unsettled at the lacklustre shell her former friend has become, Lucy insinuates herself deeper and deeper into Alice and John’s lives, and you find yourself thinking Lucy could well be Alice’s salvation. However, Lucy’s company mutates from ‘friendly sleepover’ to ‘stifling omnipresence’, leaving Alice very little time to arrange her thoughts clearly and to question why the girl she so spectacularly fell out with at college, and to whom she hasn’t spoken since that day, has suddenly arrived on her doorstep. Creeping goosebumps be damned – the ebullient, confident Lucy painstakingly draws Alice out of the apartment, hoping to reignite some of her old confidence, and helping her learn to appreciate the bustling nexus of her new home. And she tries, Alice; in spite of her timidity and the constant sense of being wrong-footed by the shifting slyness of the city.  But ever so slowly, the layers of this new Lucy peel away, and brief moments of doubt in Alice’s mind soon flare into startling flashbacks, and premonitions of danger … but she’s misjudged where the threat will manifest itself.

“The feelings I had felt toward Lucy, I often thought, were something like this – something sharper than a normal friendship, something that I felt threatened to overwhelm and, quite possibly, destroy me. There were moments when I had thought that I did not so much as want her, as I wanted to be her.”

Whilst Alice and Lucy are the main characters, the city itself plays an enormous role in the progression of the story.  It’s sinuosity writhes from oppressive and seething to lonely; from menacing to tempting, from promising to intimidating.  Seemingly ungraspable, it overwhelms Alice and tilts her off balance, whilst Lucy is emboldened by the heat and the colour and the noise. Tangier is undoubtedly the third main character of the book, playing the role of a guileful and duplicitous frenemy.

Tangerine could so easily have been a 5-star story but, like other reviewers, I felt that two elements of the book shaved off that last vital star…

  • The chapters alternate between Alice’s narration of events and Lucy’s,  but despite their hugely different personalities, their voices are close to indistinguishable. I occasionally found myself reading a chapter I thought was Alice’s and it wasn’t until the story-teller was relishing the sweltering clamour and noise of the city that I realised I was, in fact, walking in Lucy’s shoes.  The names of the women are stated at the start of each chapter, but when a story’s as intoxicating as this, I’d find myself so immersed in the narrative that the pages seemingly turned themselves and the heading of each chapter was lost to me.  With Alice being such a meek character, and Lucy being so confident I felt there was ample opportunity to bring with more palpable contrasts between the parlance of the two woman.
  • Rather than building as the story progresses, the suspense falters for a short while around the mid point of the book … as if the midday heat of Tangier made it a bit too much of an effort.  It’s around this point in the book when Alice’s character becomes even more insipid, and it’s rather unfortunate that the two occurrences prevail for the same period of the book.  But it doesn’t last, so do persevere! The simmering tensions return and continue to fester, carrying the reader onwards to a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed the understated escapist ending, but I feel certain that it won’t be to every reader’s liking. Likewise, I imagine some readers may find the lack of full disclosure a little discombobulating.  Personally, I like that the author has left some facets of the story to her readers’ intellect; allowing us to colour-in some elements of the story in our own minds rather than spoon-feeding us. No words have been wasted on the descriptions of any of the characters – they are sparely but effectively sketched out for us, dangling just enough detail for us to flesh them out in our own imagination; an extremely clever style of writing that creates the ultimate co-dependent relationship between the reader and the story.

Tangerine is pitched as a suspense-thriller novel, and I’d agree that it hits the spot … albeit not in the way of mainstream thrillers.  I think that’s the reason I’ve read reviews by some readers who were disappointed with the book – sadly.  If you’re seeking an ‘eeek, don’t look now’ kind of thriller, this isn’t the book for you.  This is what I would call a quiet suspense; it’s been elegantly written with a light touch and the slow-burn style that reminds me of some of Hitchcock’s films … you know there are going to be creepy moments that give you goosebumps, but it’s delivered modestly and without fanfare … it’s a(n) homage to 1950’s noir. 

If you like Little Fires Everywhere, I’m fairly certain you’ll enjoy Tangerine.

create the atmosphere

Moroccan mint tea is as much as staple of Moroccan life as English Breakfast is to me; it’s an emblem of their beautifully intoxicating country. Served throughout the day, this is a sweet tea that’s surprisingly refreshing, the making of which is as ritualistic as any Chinese tea ceremony. Most importantly of all, it’s a drink you can make at home … but it takes more than a Tea Pigs pyramid bag and Russell Hobbs’ finest! My Moroccan Food is a lovely blog that’ll help you rustle up a little bit of Moroccan magic to accompany your reading time.

‘Atmospheric’ is an an increasingly used adjective in the summing-up of books – to the point of becoming over-used. Without a shadow of a doubt it’s the perfect one-word summary for Tangerine … and I adore ‘atmospheric’ books. I’d love to hear of more books that truly hit the ‘atmospheric’ mark … drop your recommendations in the comments box below.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Tangerine

  1. This review is so amazing and eloquent, it’s convinced me to check this book out further! Wow, amazing job, and I really really loved reading it ✨ I’m a fan of thrillers/suspense novels, and I haven’t read one in quite a while, so I think this would be perfect. Especially since it is a historical suspense novel (historical fiction being my other favorite genre) set in another country!! Amazing review ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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