Book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Sunday, March 17, 2019 Permalink

I requested this book belatedly after seeing it pop up in a few places. It’s got one of those interesting titles and alluring covers and, though I didn’t entirely know what I was going to be reading, the notion of disappearing girls seemed to be something that sat firmly in my reading comfort zone.

Book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLeanThe Van Apfel Girls Are Gone
by Felicity McLean
Published by HarperCollins Publishers Australia
on March 18th 2019
Source: NetGalley
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1460755065, 9781460755068
Pages: 304

'We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song and when one came back, she wasn't the one we were trying to recall to begin with.'

So begins Tikka Molloy's recounting of the summer of 1992 - the summer the Van Apfel sisters, Hannah, the beautiful Cordelia and Ruth - disappear.

Eleven and one-sixth years old, Tikka is the precocious narrator of this fabulously endearing coming-of-age story, set in an eerie Australian river valley suburb with an unexplained stench. The Van Apfel girls vanish from the valley during the school's 'Showstopper' concert, held at the outdoor amphitheatre by the river. While the search for the sisters unites the small community on Sydney's urban fringe, the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved forever.

I very much liked McLean’s writing and note – though this is her first novel – she’s previously ghost-written a number of books, so her prose reflect a comfortable confidence.

I wasn’t sure if it was just the cover and its blurb conjuring up visions of some sort of ethereal presence reminiscent of The Virgin Suicides and Picnic at Hanging Rock but there was a strong sense of eeriness throughout. Having said that, the plot itself is more ‘grounded’ than “Picnic” and the sense of menace more tangible.

It unfolds from the point of view of Tikka (which is a nickname and I don’t think we learn her real name. As an aside, I kept thinking we may eventually find out the character is male or something!).

We meet Tikka in the present but she takes us back to her childhood, to the time of the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls. It jumps about in time a little (in the past) and it occasionally confused me in that respect as I wasn’t sure if things were happening before or after other events.

That’s obviously not a big issue but just means that I found the girls’ story a little disjointed in parts.

I adored young Tikka and her complete lack of guile. As a kid she’s sassy and smart. As an adult she’s never recovered from the guilt of the secrets she kept when the girls disappeared.

This story – of course – is as much about the lives of Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth ‘before’ as it is about their disappearance. And it’s as much about Tikka and Laura as it is about the Van Apfel girls. The blurb talks about a ‘coming of age’ story and it is in some ways though it’s about such a short moment in time that it’s more of a snapshot about an idyllic and not-so-idyllic childhood. It’s about childhood innocence, friendships and the lives we keep hidden.

As an adult reading this novel and in retrospect for Tikka and Laura there would have been a lot of red flags: the bruises, the secrets, the feelings of unease experienced around certain men and the way ‘God’ spoke to Mr Van Apfel and instructed him when it came to disciplining Cordie.

And it’s Cordie who remains vivid in Tikka’s memory as she’s the most enigmatic of the three girls, drawing more attention – both good and bad.

She knew more. She sensed more. Cordie kept strange, private things curled up in her carelessness that were too tight for the rest of us to unravel. Of course she’d come back to flaunt that in our faces. It seemed so obvious afterwards. p 30 (in my ebook version).

I’m a bit of a control freak so like answers and closure but can also appreciate that we don’t always need to know. However I probably would have liked a little more clarity. We kinda learn the why and what happens (after all, Tikka tells us it all starts with Cordelia’s broken arm and her ‘fall’ from the tree) but it also offers up some sense of why there was a time imperative for the girl’s disappearance.

The strengths of this novel for me is the ethereal quality I mention and McLean’s writing. Her character development is also really strong and I loved young Tikka in the same way everyone adored Harper Lee’s Scout’s earnestness. Older Tikka is living a half-life of sorts and it’s a reminder how secrets, guilt and the unknown can impact on us.

“You’ve got to find a way to live with it,” Laura tells Tikka years later.

As an aside, I also enjoyed the glimpses / reminders of Aussie cultural history, particularly the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, and conviction and exoneration of her mother, which figured strongly in the novel.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean will be published in Australia by Harper Collins and available from 18 March 2019.

I received an electronic copy from the publisher for review purposes.


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