Title: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone
Author: Felicity McLean
Genre: Fiction Thriller/Mystery
Favourite Part: When a young Tikka re-enacts (unsuccessfully) the Lindy Chamberlain saga as her talent show act — it was a great juxtaposition to the seriousness that was happening regarding the Van Apfel sisters during the climax of the story, and also played an important role in detailing the girls’ disappearance.
Favourite Quote: “We saw more of the girls after they disappeared than we ever did before. Their noses no longer pressed up against the fly screen of our back door, their lips bleeding through the tiny wire squares as they called us over for a swim.”
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a beautifully atmospheric, nostalgic nod to the childhood Australian summer, combining the innocence of youth with a dark mystery plaguing the community in which it is set.
Switching between 1992 and 2012, we follow Tikka as she experiences the disappearance of her three best friends, the Van Apfel sisters in December of 1992. 11-year-old Tikka narrates the majority of the story. We spend time with her and the Van Apfel girls as they partake in typical adolescent activities: sleepovers, days spent by the pool and schoolyard games to name a few. Up until the sisters go missing, it is a typical Australian summer.
We first meet Tikka in 2012, living in Baltimore and working in as an assistant research technician in the medical field. She is haunted by the events that transpired when she was only 11 and we begin to realise that there is no closure for the case.
“I saw so many ‘Cordies’ over the years that it became a nervous tic.”
The use of a younger Tikka as the narrator is what sets this mystery apart from other books I’ve read in this genre. There’s an innocence and naivete to the way she tells the story; a sense that we are only experiencing what a child would see and interpret. It’s a different take on the unreliable narrator trope and it has suited this story well. We are left to infer the deeper meanings behind what Tikka experiences, such as the interactions between her and the Van Apfel parents who are deeply evangelical and enforce their beliefs on their children with an iron fist.
The sisters don’t have the healthiest relationship with their parents, especially their religious father. He is abusive towards the girls—particularly Cordie. The scenes between her and her father are painful and tense to read, and McLean places us right in the centre of the conflict through Tikka’s perspective.
McLean masterfully captures the essence of the Australian summer: muggy, sticky, and carefree. Little details that I remember from my childhood cropped up within the book, such as: soaking your school hat in water and placing it back on your head to escape the heat, to the gentle slap of thongs on pavement as I went out exploring before dinner time. The way in which McLean describes the setting is brilliantly vivid and realistic, immersing the reader in a world that could have easily been taken from a true crime story.
I can easily see why this new release has been billed as the modern Picnic at Hanging Rock. I white-knuckled my way through the climax of the book, hoping for some resolution to the mystery at the centre of this story and I didn’t get it. I was left feeling just like Tikka; desperate for answers and equally heartbroken at the little information we did discover.
If you’re looking for a quintessentially Australian story that gets under your skin and frustrates you as much as it thrills you, pick up The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone.