Review: ‘Tangerine’ parallels a relationship with a revolution

by Lucy Turnipseed | 2/12/19 2:30am

“Tangerine” by Christine Mangan transported me beyond my world. I felt like I knew how the ghostliness, both the good and bad tangles of history, feels in Tangier. The book brought the feeling of standing on top of Phoenician tombs, gleaming white against the azure of the intersection of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Oceans alive; I felt like I could feel the layered history beneath my feet and the physical manifestations of syncretic culture present before my eyes.

“Tangerine” has opened my eyes to the restlessness and nervousness that welled in the crowded medina of the city during the mid-twentieth century. The book introduced me to the oppressing yet sweet heat. 

The spirit of the backdrop is ineluctable in “Tangerine” by Christine Mangan, and that is only the story’s locale. The story also undulates with its descriptive settings, passing between the snowy Green Mountains of New England and Morocco. Further, readers know how it feels to be both protagonists, Lucy Mason and Alice Shipley, and can think how they think and anticipate their reactions before their eyes even meet the words on the page that tell them. 

The story opens with Alice living a newly constructed life in Tangier, a newly-wed in an about-to-be-newly-freed country. It is a life that Lucy would live perfectly but one that Alice fears. While Alice’s life is not exciting, it is relatively stable at the beginning of the story, only to be upset by Lucy, who comes from her anonymous life in New York. Arriving in Tangier, she drags up the pair’s tumultuous past in Vermont and slowly initiates the reader into their shared history. The manipulation and atrocities they went through are only matched by the connection and overwhelming magnetism they have with each other.

It is not that this book is simply enthralling, but the strange relationship between the two women at the center of the narrative pulls at something deeper. Their impossible dependency is dangerous to both, but the mutual destruction their kindred is sure to produce is as complicated as life itself. Instead of a sappy, sad movie that elicits the same big-picture thoughts about humanity, however, each and every word is utterly personal.

That personal feeling accompanying every word is precisely what gets the reader wrapped up in the history that is brought to life in “Tangerine.” The depiction of the role of women in societies across the world at this time of colonial unrest, right when power dynamics were changing across the globe, is especially poignant. Contrasting in many ways, but perfectly parallel for the plot, Mangan provides an intimate portrait of the changing tides of colonialism and gendered dynamics.

At times, the extreme frailness of one half of the female duo and the seemingly psychopathic mind of the other seems exaggerated. While it is true that one person is not purely one thing or another, the way in which Mangan highlights these characteristics makes a statement about the way women are almost forced into singular roles by society. However, the pair also seem too aware of their emotions, more in tune with the workings of their mind and their sensations than the average person.

Beyond these inconsistencies with reality, Mangan definitely creates characters that, on the surface, would appear normal to society. The only outward difference is that one wears trousers daily, which is one hint of Lucy pushing the envelope.

Mangan’s parallel plots of the two women and the colonial liberation movement in Morocco converge well toward the end of the novel. The idea of a surface reality and an alternative, true undercurrent of chaos is also seen in the streets of Tangier; market days happen regularly, with locals going about their routine business. But there is a restlessness to the group. When they leave their regular roles behind at night, they are protesters, activists and celebrants of their impending freedom letting loose in the streets and opposing foreign rule.

Life goes on, as Mangan illustrates, even in the most utterly destructive moments of the novel. But there is always more happening under the veneer of togetherness with which most are primarily acquainted. I thought I knew how one word or a simple phrase could be evocative of history, but Mangan pushed me to think that one word could be capable of this — and this word can connect anyone who understands her narrative to that history in a personal way.