Morocco has long loomed in the Western imagination as a stand-in for mystery, wonder, even danger — albeit usually of a nonlethal adventurous nature.
Christine Mangan’s debut novel, “Tangerine,” taps all of these ready-made emotions by making the Moroccan port of Tangiers a character in its own right. (Mangan’s book is also poised to join cinematic adventures set in Morocco, such as “Casablanca” and “Hideous Kinky”; a film adaptation by Abi Morgan (“Shame,” “The Iron Lady”) is already in the works, with George Clooney producing and Scarlett Johansson set to star.)
It’s 1956, and Alice Shipley has recently moved to the seaside city with her husband but is having trouble adjusting to its high terraces, labyrinthine streets and dry, dusty heat. Then Lucy Mason shows up at her door.
The two met as roommates at Bennington College in Vermont: Alice affluent, British and retiring; Lucy none of the above. A scholarship student from the nearby Green Mountains, Lucy was probing, rash and not the brightest star in the firmament, proudly deploying 25-cent words like “affinity” and “languid” as if they were passages from Dante.
An unattributed introduction sets the stakes with a dead body being pulled from the water, then Alice and Lucy take turns telling the tale from their own perspectives, alternating chapters. It becomes increasingly unclear who — if either — is the more reliable narrator, as Mangan draws on a rich legacy of psychological thrillers, from “Single White Female” to “Gaslight” to “Fatal Attraction.”
Tension builds both in Morocco, as the women try to reconnect, and Bennington, as they flash back to their onetime close friendship and the catalyzing event that altered it. While the outcome never really seems in doubt, the overall journey is an enjoyable one and well worth taking.