Felicity McLean’s debut novel The Van Apfel Girls are Gone left me breathless. I devoured it over two hot nights in February, curled in the foetal position on the couch desperate to know where the Van Apfel girls went, and why. You could describe the book as Australian gothic, akin to Picnic at Hanging Rock. In fact, the back cover describes the book as “The Virgin Suicides meets Jasper Jones meets
Picnic at Hanging Rock”. So many points of comparison might do the book a disservice as it is absolutely its own thing; in its own right.
Twenty years after the disappearance of the three Van Apfel sisters, their childhood friend Tikka returns home from America to see her sister Laura. Laura was close with the eldest sister Hannah, Tikka with the youngest Ruth. The most enigmatic and elusive of the trio was the middle child, Cordelia. The girls struggle to find comfort in a deeply religious household presided over by their tyrannical father. Everyone suspects, but nobody questions, the darkness inside that house.
The chapters alternate between 1992, when the sisters vanished, and 2012, when Tikka returns home to Macedon Close. The thing is, Tikka never really left Macedon close or that summer of 1992. The sisters have been more present since they evaporated than they ever were in life: random sightings, clues, hauntings. They stalk Tikka and feed her sense of guilt over what happened.
McLean’s writing is perfectly tuned. Precise. She beautifully captures the Australian suburbs of the 1990s, that unforgivable summer heat, the intensity of girlhood and approaching womanhood. As you progress through the book McLean peels back layers of memory and history that is reminiscent of how trauma works: going over the same ground, raking it back to see what else is underneath. As
if you haven’t done it a million times before. As if there’s any dirt left to rake. Except, in Tikka’s case, there is.
This is an accomplished debut. McLean’s career as a journalist and ghostwriter has no doubt equipped her for a brilliant career as a novelist. Highly recommend.
Reviewed by Charlotte