A favorite subject of fiction is the unequal friendship, especially with best friends at school or college. Here it’s Bennington in the fifties when it was a women’s college and the BFs and roommates are Alice, a wealthy English orphan, and Lucy, a local scholarship girl (or “shipper” in collegiate slang). An incident their senior year—referred to as “the accident”—led to their estrangement. Alice returned to England, married John, a man of somewhat dubious character, and moved to Tangier (which of course is where Westerners sojourned to indulge tastes that might well have got them into trouble at home). A year later and tired of a boring life in New York, Lucy follows her friend to Tangier and is received as a houseguest. Differences in social and financial status render such relationships intrinsically fissile; either the upper-class character treats her acolyte as a disposable toy, or the lower-class one schemes to take advantage of and manipulate the superior. For about half of this book I was on tenterhooks to find out whether Alice or Lucy or even both would turn out villains, while the plot unfolded with glacial pace. But in the latter part I found I so disliked both of them that I scarcely cared. One seemed hopelessly dependent and passive and the other both obsessive and totally amoral and unfeeling. And yet the plot gathered speed to drive me to finish. I was relieved that I cared for neither because the ending was morally and spiritually extremely disturbing. As I read I found my sympathies shifting back and forth between Lucy and Alice, till finally the identity of the victim is established. Fortunately, not only are the characters beyond credibility, but the villain’s machinations (in one incident in the backstory, literally requiring a mechanic, which would have been a most unlikely job for a woman in the fifties) impossibly fortuitous and contrived, requiring preternatural foresight, quick-wittedness, and impossible stupidity on the part of the victim and the police. (Not to mention shifting a corpse on a cliff side – several times!) So when I reached the end, I felt thoroughly depressed, but as one does after reading Othello, am comforted by the assurance it couldn’t happen in real life.
Tangerine sated my fascination with revisiting the fifties, that began with The After Party and continued with the Invitation and The Italian Party. As we could expect with the “wrong side of the Mediterranean” Tangier seems the sort of place sleazy people go to indulge in activities they’d not want known when they are at home, so the upsetting conclusion is most appropriate. But though I didn’t enjoy this book and wish I’d not read it, like Durrell’s Justine the louche (I so seldom have a chance to use that word) atmosphere of the North African continent is so thick you can scarcely breathe. In such a hot and dusty phantasmagorical setting, with the wind blowing in from the desert, you’ll start to believe something like this could have occurred, but long ago and in another country.