Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 296 pages; 2019.
Modern history is littered with true-life stories about missing children who are never found — think the Beaumont children (in Australia) or Madeline McCann (in the UK). Felicity McLean takes this idea as the focal point of her debut novel The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, which tells the story of the fictional disappearance of three blonde sisters — the Van Apfel children of the title — from the perspective of their childhood friend, Tikka Malloy.
Falsely billed as “a Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation” (it isn’t), I had mixed feelings about this novel.
Here’s what I liked about it
The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is set in Australia in 1992, which makes it a kind of historical novel. McLean cleverly reminds us of the era, not by stating the year repeatedly, but by making reference to certain elements, such as TV shows popular at the time (A Country Practice, for instance, which is a complete throwback to my teenage years), food items (Bubble O’Bill ice-creams, which I used to love when I was about 13) and news stories. She uses the Azaria Chamberlain case, which was coming to its final conclusion in 1992, as a backdrop, reminding us that when children disappear everyone has an opinion about what happened and who’s to blame — and they’re not always correct.
The mystery element
McLean paints a realistic portrait of what happens when children go missing — the police investigation, the search parties out looking and the fear that permeates through the community — but refrains from offering any easy answers. Indeed, the girls are never found and no one knows what happened to them, but McLean drops enough clues for the reader to figure things out for themselves. (I suspect this would make for a terrific book group discussion because each reader will have a different theory about why, and how, the sisters vanished.)
The story is largely told from Tikka Malloy’s point-of-view. She was eleven and one-sixth years old when the girls vanished. Her voice is whip smart and funny, often because she’s unaware of her own naivety, but also because she wants to impress the adults around her by proving she knows more than they do about certain things. Some of the things she says — and does — are quite funny, not least the skit she puts on as part of her school’s Showstopper concert held on the night of the girls’ disappearance.
Here’s what I didn’t like about it
The switch between past and present
The narrative is told largely from the perspective of Tikka as a young girl, but it opens — and ends — with her as a 30-year-old returning home momentarily after more than a decade living abroad. The voice between the young Tikka and the older Tikka isn’t much different, and the switches between past and present felt a bit clunky. I wasn’t actually convinced that the older Tikka was even necessary to the storyline, because all it really shows is that 19 years on the Van Apfel girls are still missing — and that could have been done in a much simpler way.
The secondary storyline involving Tikka’s sister
Similarly, I wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for Tikka’s older sister, Laura, to be diagnosed with cancer as an adult. In my view, this didn’t add anything overall to the story, and Laura was too thinly drawn to give the narrative any extra weight. Perhaps all it did was give Tikka a reason to come back to her childhood home. But… so what?
The uneven tone and style
The prose is often beautiful in places, but is inconsistent, almost as if McLean is still finding her voice. The storyline felt slightly disjointed, too, and I couldn’t help thinking a few structural edits would have helped smooth things out.
All up, I was disappointed by The Van Apfel Girls are Gone. It’s billed as a mystery thriller but really it’s a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s. It’s endearing in places, and heartfelt too, but it lacked a certain panache and reading it felt more of a chore than an entertainment. That said, it will be interesting to see what McLean comes up with next…
This is my 12th book for #AWW2019.