I bought this in part because I’d caught wind of the hype but primarily because of the Joyce Carol Oates quote on the cover: “As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock.”
I feel a bit nervous contradicting such a grande dame of American letters as Oates but, while I can figure out the Highsmith comparison and certainly the Hitchcock one, I simply don’t see the resemblance to the works of Tartt or Flynn. The only real twist here is the one right at the end (where contrary to genre expectations the status quo is not restored), so that cuts Flynn out, and the novel simply doesn’t have that sort of magisterial quality you expect from Tartt.
Turning away from what the book is not, what about what it is?
It’s 1956 in Tangiers (or Tangier), and neurotic Alice Shipley has been living here for the past year in an unhappy marriage to John, whose main occupations are spending his wife’s inheritance and cavorting in bars with unsuitable women. Into this situation arrives Lucy Mason, Alice’s old room mate and dearest friend at college in Bennington, where the two were students together. The friendship ended back then with the tragic death of Alice’s fiance, Tom, when his car ran out of control, but now Lucy, who’s crossed half the world to seek Alice out, wants the two to start over as if their relationship had never been interrupted.
At first Alice seems acquiescent to the idea, but then her terror emerges more and more of being absorbed by the stronger-minded Lucy. The parallels with Highsmith are clear, then: just as in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a psychopath is sinisterly setting out to take over another person’s life, while a homosexual undertone eventually surfaces to become a central theme. (Yes, and Hitchcock could indeed have filmed this during his later period, around the time of Frenzy, perhaps.)
The tale is told for the most part through alternating first-person accounts by Alice and Lucy (for some reason, Lucy’s last two chapters shift to the third person). It’s perhaps the book’s biggest problem that the two narrative voices are indistinguishable, so that it can be momentarily difficult to remember which of the two women is currently speaking to us. This flaw becomes more egregious still when you realize how strikingly different the characters of the two women are supposed to be: spunky Lucy, who’ll travel the world on her own without fear, and timid Alice, who’s scared of popping out to the nearest store for a pint of milk. Surely the two wouldn’t have identical voices? (For a time, bemused by this, I toyed with the notion that Lucy might turn out to be a sort of imaginary alter ego of Alice, Three Faces of Eve-style, but luckily we were spared that denouement.)
I’ve mentioned the lack of stunning volte faces, or even much by way of yer volte-facery at all; even the final big reveal comes as a surprise not so much because its possibility has never crossed your mind but simply because you’d assumed the story wouldn’t take that course. I found the studied preciousness of Mangan’s prose pleasing at times, but more often not. And I was troubled by a couple of what seemed to me to be loose ends: the logistics of Tom’s car crash don’t seem to work, while I still don’t know who the enigmatic Tangerine with the scarred face is supposed to be.
This isn’t at all a bad book — I hope I haven’t given that impression — but neither is it the groundbreaking psychological thriller I’d been led to expect. It’s a promising debut — a lot more promising than most debuts, in fact — and that’s perhaps how best to approach it.