Thursday, 20 December 2018

Book review: Tangerine, Christine Mangan (2018)

This psychological thriller went well until about the 75-percent mark then it suddenly fell apart, the reader’s credulity stretched to a thinness that was quite unable to support the burden of the narrative tricks introduced to achieve the ending the author had picked out for herself. I will include spoilers in what follows, so if you don’t want to know how the book turns out, stop reading here.

The story involves two young women, the literary Lucy and the fey Alice (who reminded me, for some reason, of Joan Didion, with her frail emotional equilibrium and her reliance on having a man in her life to ensure her happiness). Lucy and Alice were roommates at a college in Vermont; Lucy having gained a scholarship and the privileged Alice having been sent over from England, where she grew up, to be educated. The two become good friends but when Alice develops a relationship with a young man named Tom who attends a nearby educational institution, Lucy contrives to sabotage Tom’s car. Tom is killed and Alice is injured.

Alice recovers her health and marries a man named John and they move to Tangier, where most of the novel takes place. The year is 1956, the year of Morocco’s independence. John has some sort of official position and he’s probably a spy. Lucy finds out John is sleeping with another woman and tries to get Alice to separate from her husband by telling her, but when Alice refuses to budge Lucy contrives to kill John with a rock, then manages to convince Alice’s aunt Maud that Alice is mentally unstable. Lucy ruthlessly gaslights Alice and eventually escapes the country, having agreed with Maud to help look after Alice in a mental institution in Spain.

The novel ruthlessly exploits genre tropes borrowed from chick lit and also from Gothic fiction. The author of ‘Tangerine’ wrote a thesis on Gothic novels at university and this is her first novel. I found the beginning hard to get through but then with a little patience realised that the melodrama was a product of a mixture of genre themes and methods, and provided a suitable set of tools for the ideas being explored. Until the thing falls over when Alice refuses to identify Lucy to the police as the killer. The police come to her flat and are sitting right there on the couch and Alice says nothing to them and I didn’t believe what I was reading.

Alice has another try at getting herself off the hook when she goes to see a con artist named Youssef Lucy had used to make false papers for herself, and whom Lucy had convinced the police was John’s murderer. But Youssef refuses to play the game with Alice, and she gives up. These elements of the plot meant that the whole edifice groaned on to the denouement in a way that would see Alice’s life ruined. Why Mangan wanted this to be the outcome is hard to fathom, but clearly she thought it serves her artistic purposes.

The use of genre methods to realise the goal of giving a female lead the type of agency normally given to men – Lucy rides off into the sunset in the end, free of obstacles and with the rest of her life left to live, while Alice is confined to a room and is probably drugged senseless – I found depressing. I thought that the author’s points could have been equally well made if Lucy had been found guilty of John’s death. There would have been plenty of opportunities to make the same points that Mangan seems to have been intent on making, without on paper destroying the life of an innocent woman.

There is therefore in my mind a kind of mania in Magan’s vision, a kind of revanchist extremism that she herself points to with a few select words in the text: words like “patriarchy”. The risk of pursuing your goals with a singleminded intensity is that you might end up hurting people who have done nothing wrong – people like John and Alice – and so Mangan seems to have a message for feminists. I read all of this disappointing book but couldn’t finish it fast enough.

For a while there things were different. For a long time while reading the book I was making comparisons in my head between this novel and Jane Austen’s stylish ‘Northanger Abbey’, which came out after the author’s death, in 1817 (though it had been finished by 1803).

Austen’s novel is a spoof of the Gothic genre popular at the time, notably the novels of Ann Radcliffe. The Gothic mode was a way for the society at the time to use the canonical Other – in this case places in Catholic southern Europe – to articulate uncertainties that existed in the community about its own social structures. The use of the Other to achieve this goal was highly original (the only similar formal tactic I can think of is the knightly romance of the Renaissance, of some 200 years earlier) and the Gothic reigned supreme for the best part of a generation in England and in Europe more broadly. While Austen’s 1817 novel pokes fun at the methods used in Gothic fiction, it also points out quite clearly that society could, in fact, offer dangers to the unsuspecting young woman (the Gothic heroine was almost always a nubile young woman). So while it scores its points at the expense of writers like Radcliffe, it shows that the author was aware that the Gothic mode offered people a way to investigate real issues in contemporary society. This aspect of Austen’s book reminded me of Mangan’s novel.

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