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The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone


The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Tikka Malloy was 11 and one-sixth years old during the summer of 1992. That summer was notable for a few reasons. First, it was the year that Lindy Chamberlain (of “a dingo took my baby” notoriety) was exonerated. Second, it was the year that the three Van Apfel sisters --- Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth --- vanished. Tikka and her sister, Laura, who were friends with the Van Apfel girls, have been both haunted and horrified by that summer --- and their actions during it --- ever since, but they have never been able to discuss it. In Felicity McLean’s THE VAN APFEL GIRLS ARE GONE, Tikka returns home to her native Australia to confront her past and lay rest to the girls she sees around every corner.

In the 20 years since that tragic summer, Tikka has fled her home in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, for Baltimore, where she works in a hospital lab. When we meet her at the start of the book, she is returning home for the first time to see her sister, who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and her elderly parents. But she has never forgotten the summer that the Van Apfel girls disappeared, and the visit has a tense, melancholy feel as she is forced to remember them and wonder where they might be now, if they are even alive.

"Equal parts THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, with a ton of Australian personality thrown in, McLean’s debut novel is sharp, endearing and unforgettable."

In alternating chapters, McLean leads us through the balmy days of the summer of 1992 as Tikka and her friends eat ice cream, have slumber parties and go swimming. But through the lens of adulthood, Tikka examines some darker memories of that time, too, regaling readers with stories of Mr. Van Apfel, a deeply religious man who ruled his family with explosive cruelty and obsessive tendencies. What makes him so shocking is that his vicious streaks were so easily glossed over by Tikka and her sister in their youth --- a fact now unignorable to grownup Tikka. Unfortunately, this is not the only shadowy figure from the girls’ past. Tikka also confronts her memories of Mr. Avery, a young, handsome school teacher whose presence at their hangouts and public outings was always just a bit too convenient.

Stifled under their father’s thumb and dealing with the multitude of issues that teenage girls face, it is no wonder that Hannah, Cordie and Ruth plan to run away. But the night of their departure is plagued by missteps, and the details surrounding their final escape are fuzzy; neither Tikka nor Laura is certain that they have survived. When Ruth’s body is found, it adds only more mystery to their disappearance. Did Hannah and Cordie leave their sister behind, or did they all succumb to the desert’s unbearable days and frigid nights?

Examining the events leading up to the girls’ disappearance as an adult, Tikka is forced to wonder if she and Laura --- or any of the local adults --- did the right thing in ignoring Mr. Van Apfel’s outbursts and keeping the girls’ plans secret. Having never dealt with the tragedy as a youth, adult Tikka experiences a sort of second coming of age that walks readers through all the turbulent emotions of youth. Already feeling a bit unmoored in her personal life, Tikka becomes obsessed with examining every moment of that summer --- much to the dismay of her sister, who would prefer to keep that summer secret. As Tikka becomes reacquainted with her hometown, she speaks with several characters who add to her understanding of the lore surrounding the girls and gets clearer answers on who knew what. But the one thing she cannot do is forget them, especially Cordie, who seemed to 11-year-old Tikka like a young queen, and who she still sees in every crowded room and across every street.

THE VAN APFEL GIRLS ARE GONE is not exactly a mystery: we do not get answers about what happened to the missing girls, and after 20 years, it almost would not matter if we did. Where McLean shines, and where the real strength of the book lies, is in her pitch-perfect character development and creation of a sense of place. The setting of Australia is a character in and of itself, and McLean immerses her readers in it seamlessly and beautifully; you can practically feel the sun beating down on you and smell the stench wafting up from the river through the gully as you read. At the same time, the dialogue between the young girls is delightful. With children ranging in age from 11 to 14, and even young Ruth at seven, you get the full breadth of humor, gossip and ridiculousness that you would expect, but with McLean’s perfect pitch, each character feels wholly unique.

This is every bit a coming-of-age story, and the sense of menace and melancholy that hangs over it are enough to draw in any sort of reader. Equal parts THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, with a ton of Australian personality thrown in, McLean’s debut novel is sharp, endearing and unforgettable.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 9, 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone
by Felicity McLean

  • Publication Date: June 25, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 161620964X
  • ISBN-13: 9781616209643