Title: The Van Apfel Girls are Gone
Author: Felicity McLean
Published: March 18th 2019
Publisher: 4th Estate AU
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary
Rating: 4 stars
Part mystery, part coming of age story, The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is set in a distant suburb on the encroaching bushland, over the long hot summer of 1992. It’s the summer of the school’s Showstopper concert. The summer Tikka never forgot. The summer the Van Apfel sisters disappeared. Blackly comic, sharply observed and wonderfully endearing.
‘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.’
Tikka Molloy was eleven and one-sixth years old during the long hot summer of 1992 – the summer the Van Apfel sisters disappeared. Hannah, beautiful Cordelia and Ruth vanished during the night of the school’s Showstopper concert at the amphitheatre by the river, surrounded by encroaching bushland.
Now, years later, Tikka has returned home to try and make sense of the summer that shaped her, and the girls that she never forgot.
Blackly comic, sharply observed and wonderfully endearing, this is Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation, a haunting coming-of-age story with a shimmering, unexplained mystery at its heart.
‘Then she said the words I’d been waiting to hear: ‘Don’t you know? The Van Apfel girls are gone.’
Felicity McLean may have just released her first debut novel, but she is no stranger to the written word. She has carved out a career as a respected ghost writer, a children’s book author and a journalist. This previous experience has put McLean in good standing. The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is assured, refined and incredibly intriguing. It had me hook, line and sinker!
At the very heart of The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is Tikka Molloy and the fateful summer of 1992. At just eleven years old, Tikka was impacted by an incident that will haunt her for years to come. Day after day Tikka and her sister Laura socialise with their neighbours, the Van Apfel sisters. Older sister Hannah, ethereal Cordelia and younger sister Ruth become entrenched in the lives and memories of Tikka. When they mysteriously disappear after a concert at their local school, a search of the local bushland area reveals nothing. Some twenty years after the disappearance of the Van Apfel sisters, Tikka comes home, in an attempt to understand the events of the fateful summer that has forever become etched on her mind.
The striking cover of The Van Apfel Girls are Gone first caught my eye. The innocent young blonde girl has a real The Virgin Suicides vibe. In fact, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that this novel has been likened to the Jeffrey Eugenides modern classic. Felicity McLean’s debut novel has also been compared to a present day Picnic at Hanging Rock. It does have that mysterious, haunting, speculative feel that Joan Lindsay’s classic exudes. With such highly regarded books linked to this novel, The Van Apfel Girls are Gone has some big shoes to fill, but thankfully it delivered.
The book is structured in a split timeline style of narration. We meet Tikka Molloy, the principal narrator, in the opening stages of the novel after an eventful prologue. Early on in the novel, questions are thrown in the air, accusations made and speculation is aimed at the young Van Apfel girls and their unusual father. This level of suspense, intrigue and conjecture is carried over for the entire novel. It is a hard act to maintain, but McLean nails it.
McLean’s characterisation is steadfast. I couldn’t fault it. Each Van Apfel girl is illuminated by McLean’s precise prose and I was able to build a strong picture in my mind of these young sisters. Likewise, their father, the fervent Mr Van Apfel was captured well by McLean. As the book is told primarily through the eyes of an impassioned eleven year old, there are some doubts surrounding the character portraits of these protagonists, particularly the adults. The whole tone of the book is ambiguous, full of grey areas, doubts, misunderstandings and gaps. I think it works well to draw out the suspense and mystery side of the novel.
Another element of the book that I really connected with was the setting. Set in 1992, Tikka is exactly the same age as I was in this year. It worked to strengthen my connection and understanding of the events on the book. McLean successfully takes the reader back to a time of innocence, where we were much more connected to our local neighbourhood and community. McLean captures the naivety and carefree nature of Tikka, who behaved in almost exactly the same way as I would have done in this era. It is suburban NSW in 1992, but it could just as easily have been my own suburb in Perth. I was fondly reminded of pop culture and common aspects of this era, from paddle pops, to redskins, sprinklers and endless hours spent in backyard swimming pools.
I felt that the book was more about Tikka’s journey to recover from a life changing incident that occurred in childhood that directly shaped her consciousness as an adult. She experiences a form of PTSD. Tikka has a strong sense of guilt and she has visions that haunt her. Tikka also has an almost obsessive need to reconnect with the missing Cordelia. In some respects I feel that The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is a good study of post traumatic stress disorder and bystander’s guilt.
Tikka’s experience in the novel could also be considered a coming of age style piece. It is easy to draw a line between this novel and a number of great Australian coming of age novels such as Looking for Alibrandi and Jasper Jones. There is also a distinct scent of Australian gothic following this novel, which is why The Van Apfel Girls are Gone has been compared to Picnic at Hanging Rock. The cryptic and paradoxical turn of events for The Van Apfel Girls are Gone definitely puts this book in the same vein as Picnic at Hanging Rock. I would have appreciated a final answer to not only the disappearance of The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, but what exactly happened to Cordelia, the truth behind their possible abuse by their father and the links to the teacher. McLean does want the reader to draw their own conclusions.
With themes of religious devotion, friendship, maturity, trust, loyalty, suppression, secrecy, remorse and regret following The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, this one will shock you and stun you. A pointed and slick first novel, the trapping style of storytelling will pull you in from the opening moments, to the very close of this captivating debut.
The Van Apfel Girls are Gone by Felicity McLean was published on 18th March 2019 by 4th Estate. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
To learn more about the author of The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, Felicity McLean visit here.
*I wish to thank Harper Collins Books Australia for providing me with a free copy of this book for review purposes.
The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is book #46 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge