Felicity McLean’s debut novel novel has been described as The Virgin Suicides meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. Set in small town Australia, the book is told in two time frames, and begins when Tikka Molloy returns home to reconnect with her sister Laura who isn’t well. She can’t stop thinking, had they did the right thing twenty years ago when their friends, the three Van Apfel sisters vanished. She looks back on that sweltering summer when she was eleven and the events that led up to their disappearance.
Tikka is a great child narrator – she reminds me a little bit of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, if we’re thinking of book comparisons here. She’s smart and imaginative and comes from a loving family. At the corner of their street live the Van Apfels and Tikka and Laura spend a lot of time there as the family has a pool. The Van Apfels attend a fundamentalist church – their dad, though outwardly genial, is particularly strict and this causes tension with his wayward thirteen-year-old daughter Cordelia.
There’s a lot of Tikka trying to make sense of her world and understand what’s going on with the grown-ups, and the tension that seems to lurk at the Van Apfels. There’s a new teacher, Mr Avery, who has a mysterious past that may have included a stint in prison – as rumour has it. So along with the simmering heat there is plenty of simmering tension as the school plans its big, Showstopper concert at an outdoor amphitheatre, for which Tikka has written her own skit and where events build to a climax.
In true Aussie Noir style, the landscape plays a big part in this novel. The mangroves around a brackish estuary create a sinister backdrop (Tikka complains of an unpleasant smell); the empty landscape beyond; the heat bouncing off the tarmac. It all adds to the mood and tension of the book. And there is a hint of the unreliable narrator about Tikka. How accurate are her memories from childhood? Even now as an adult she still can’t help looking for Cordelia (Cordie) at railway stations, at busy intersections, her blonde head just disappearing around corners, failing to stop when called. The Van Apfel girls may have disappeared that summer, but a part of Tikka seems to have been lost as well.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is an impressive debut, a character driven mystery that is also quite the page-turner. There is plenty of humour with the way McLean re-imagines childhood, the rivalry between sisters and between classmates, the rumours and the secrets, the superiority of the older kids. This balances out the sadness of what happens and the feeling of lost innocence which runs through the story. Not a long book, McLean’s novel is well worth picking up, and heralds a promising new author to look out for. A four out of five read from me.