Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

 

Title: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Author: Felicity McLean

Published: April 1st 2019, 4th Estate

Status: Read May 2019 – courtesy HarperCollins/ Netgalley

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My Status:

‘Don’t you know? The Van Apfel girls are gone.’

In the summer of 1992, sisters Hannah, Cordelia, and Ruth Van Apfel vanished from an outdoor school concert. Twenty years later, Tikka Molloy still imagines she might see the Van Apfel girls again, and when she returns to her family home to support her ill sister, she cannot help but reexamine the events of that fateful summer.

“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song,…”

Perhaps best described as suburban gothic, part enigmatic mystery, part haunting coming of age tale, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is told largely from the perspective of Tikka at age 11.

Tik is a charming narrator, and McLean has struck just the right balance between precociousness and naivety. With both the wisdom and innocence of childhood, she relates her experiences of the summer, from scorching days poolside, to news reports of Lindy Chamberlain’s vindication, to the secrets she and her sister, Laura, kept for their friends, Hannah, Cordelia, and Ruth Van Apfel.

“For so long we’d been haunted by those girls. Since the moment they first disappeared. We were the ones left behind, Laura and I. Defined by what was long gone. And if not that, then what? Who should we be?”

With adult hindsight, Tikka has some regrets about that summer. It’s a large part of the reason she can’t let go, and McLean thoughtfully explores the way in which Tikka was, and continues to be, affected by the missing Van Apfel girls.

It’s Cordelia, the beautiful, enigmatic middle sister that looms largest in Tikka’s mind, the target of her father’s zealotry, the subject of childish innuendo, admired and envied in almost equal measure, despite being just thirteen the year she vanished. McLean’s portrayal of the Van Apfel girls is limited, largely filtered through Tik’s unsophisticated viewpoint, but is still compelling.

“We ran elaborate underwater handstand competitions In the Van Apfel pool that day. First round, second round, best of the best. Our skinny legs stabbing at the sky like the bows of some demented orchestra.”

I have to admit a part of the appeal of this story is the nostalgia it evokes for me. Tik’s experience of childhood is not that much different than my own- handstand competitions in the pool, thongs sticking to melting bitumen roads, Sunnyboy’s dug out of the freezer, scaring ourselves half to death with seances during sleepovers. I even had pet mice, and a river ran through the bush at the bottom of my street.

“There was before and there was ever after.”

It’s only fair that prospective readers know that the fate of the Van Apfel girls remains largely unresolved, for me, it wasn’t really an issue. An atmospheric and poignant novel, I thought The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone was an engaging and mesmeric debut from Felicity McLean.

Read an Excerpt

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