Despite being titled The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, Felicity McLean’s debut novel is much more concerned with those left behind. In particular, Tikka Malloy – through whose lens all the action is filtered – and her older sister, Laura. The Malloy sisters were childhood friends of the Van Apfel girls and find themselves forever altered by the events of that unforgettable summer.
It all begins in the summer of 1992, on the night of the local Showstopper talent show. The night the Van Apfel girls vanished. But the groundwork was laid in the months, even years, leading up to that fateful evening. Readers are transported to 1990s Australia and McLean’s writing style casts a spell of nostalgia, longing, and uncertainty that envelopes and hypnotizes, refusing to release its hold on those who surrender to the tale.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is most likely to be remembered as a coming-of-age story, but Felicity McLean provides more than enough shadows and secrets to keep mystery fans engaged. Just as with life, readers should be prepared that some questions are never answered, so those who prefer everything wrapped in a nice bow by the end might want to look elsewhere. The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone’s purpose is to examine the effects of crime on those who are only tangentially involved, rather than exploring the truths behind that crime itself – assuming that there is even a crime in the first place.
To be fair, the missing Van Apfel girls are just one of the “crimes” used as a backdrop for this story. Even before those three sisters go missing, the young people are dealing with the constant news coverage of the Lindy Chamberlain trial. Readers will remember that iconic case where an Australian woman claimed a dingo snatched her baby from a tent out near Ayers Rock in the Australian outback. Needless to say, the adults in the area – and really, the entire world – were fascinated with the scandalous nature of the Chamberlain case, but as with any such barrage of updates, no one really thinks about what this is doing to the children who either watch it directly with their parents or hear about it from others on the school grounds. The interesting thing here is that readers come to The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone with the knowledge of how that case was ultimately resolved, which adds another dimension and tool to Felicity McLean’s arsenal.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a “literary” novel in the sense that readers should not expect exciting sidepieces or thrilling daring-do. This is an atmospheric novel centered on character – arguably one character in particular, Tikka. A novel that allows events to unfold in a leisurely fashion, but still structured in such a way as to maximize the resulting impression. The true impact of this work comes from the reader’s own understanding and memories of how impressionable those early years are and how ultimately it is those moments that mold us into the the people we become.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the audiobook version of the novel.