REVIEW: The Van Apfel Girls are Gone by Felicity McLean

In brief: It was a long hot summer when Tikka’s friends, the Van Apfel girls disappeared. Returning home as an adult has her reliving that summer and the unsolved mystery – where did they go?

The good: The story is heavy with nostalgia for the early 1990s.

The not-so-good: If you don’t liked ambiguity, you could find the ending a little disappointing.

Why I chose it: Thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC.

Year: 2019

Pages: 297

Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)

Setting: New South Wales, Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone oozes the sights, scents and feels of a long hot Australian summer. Add to that the sense of nostalgia for the 1990s and a mystery and you have a tinderbox of feelings. This is a wonderfully dreamy book that bites through the heat induced laziness as you realise the possible reasons for the Van Apfel girls’ disappearance.

The story opens as the main character, Tikka, thinks she sees one of the Van Apfel girls as an adult. The problem is that Tikka is in Baltimore and years have passed since the girls disappeared in Australia. Perhaps the mystery that defined Tikka’s youth is still on her mind as she plans to return home to see her sick sister. From this point, the narrative goes back in time to that summer where eleven and one sixth year old Tikka lost her neighbours and friends. Told through the first person, the reader is enveloped in the searing heat as precocious young Tikka describes her world. The eerie feelings begin to creep in as innocent Tikka recalls conversation and actions that can take on more sinister connotations when seen through an adult’s eyes. Why did the Van Apfel girls disappear? Is it related to the undercurrent of events at home or school? Or is it simply a childhood fantasy gone tragically wrong?

The reader won’t find all the answers to the Van Apfel girls’ disappearance in the novel, but there are plenty of reasons hinted at. Sometimes I feel a little ripped off as a reader when I’m left to draw my own conclusions but I didn’t feel like that with The Van Apfel Girls are Gone. It was just up to me to choose which reason was most plausible. Unfortunately there were quite a few, which McLean paints well through the eyes of Tikka. The angry father, the religious fanaticism, the schoolyard rumours, adults randomly appearing in strange places where young girls are alone… For Tikka, the story is a coming of age experience but not in the traditional way. It’s the harsh ripping off of the Band-Aid, a blunt ‘welcome to adult life’ as Tikka’s childhood comes to an end in a brutal way. That’s also likely why she ponders so much on what happened to the Van Apfel girls as an adult. As a child, she expected closure and preferably a happy ending. She’s never got that and she’s reluctant to settle or extend herself perhaps for fear that it will all change in a moment.

Felicity McLean’s writing is beautiful and wrings so much undercurrent and emotion from every sentence. The heat radiates from the pages and the scent of hot eucalyptus and distant smoke is in the air. The 1990s setting brings back a lot of nostalgia for a simpler time – no screens but playing outside, getting bored and being imaginative. The story has a literary fiction feel, but is very accessible in terms of character and plot. Don’t let that label turn you off because the novel is also a mystery, reflection on childhood and story of Australia. It’s eerie, reflective and incredibly gripping.

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