Cover of book: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Felicity McLean
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Felicity McLean’s debut novel, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, has been described as Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation. In Joan Lindsay’s classic, the girls go missing from Appleyard College, while the titular surname in McLean’s book recalls the same fruit. Cordie, Hannah and Ruth Van Apfel are three sisters who seem to evaporate into the endless, suffocating summer of 1992.

McLean’s book is both a mystery thriller and a coming-of-age story. It’s set in outer Sydney and told by Tikka Molloy, who is 11 when her girlfriends and neighbours vanish. Tikka comes back from Baltimore 20 years later, still haunted by that long-ago night, and the novel is told from the viewpoints of Tikka at both ages. Although the eager younger voice occasionally feels overdone, it’s generally an authentic incarnation of a suburban Australian girl of that age.

The atmosphere is what McLean does best: she conjures nostalgia for that unbearably hot summer when Lindy Chamberlain dominated every TV news service. She makes you remember Bubble O’Bills and handstand competitions in the pool and the feeling of wilting under the sun at school: “We walked across the playground in the same two straight lines, under the same sun, under the same paint-chipped pergola slowly being strangled by wisteria.”

McLean skilfully depicts the rituals of young adolescent girls and their interactions with others. The Molloy and Van Apfel girls are on one side of a gulf and their classmates are on the other, and they are also let down by adults they should be able to trust. As McLean evokes the girls’ discomfort around the strict and devout Mr Van Apfel, the reader comes to understand their desire to keep things hidden, and their loyalty to one another.

There are some genuinely creepy moments and the suspense slowly builds towards the school Showstopper concert, the night when the girls disappear into the bushland. Although the plot is not strikingly original, the novel is well written and absorbing throughout – you want to know what happens next, right until the end.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone has darker echoes than Picnic at Hanging Rock. There’s a distinct hint of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides too – something eerily dreamy, filled with unknowable secrets in the form of blonde, barefoot ghosts in cotton dresses.

Catie McLeod

4th Estate, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Felicity McLean, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone".

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