The Virgin Suicides meets All The Missing Girls in Felicity McLean’s smoldering Australian mystery The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone.
It’s the summer of 1992 in Australia and everyone is enthralled by the exoneration story of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain. Eleven-year-old Tikka Malloy and her older sister Laura spend their time with the three Van Apfel girls who live down the street. Ruth, Cordelia and Hannah are smart, interesting and funny, but their lives are complicated, influenced heavily by their parents’ religious fervour and peculiar behaviour. When all three girls disappear in the middle of summer, their community is left wondering what happened. Two decades later Tikka, now living in the U.S., returns to her Australian hometown to try to make sense of the summer of 1992, hopeful that she’ll finally be able to leave with answers and closure. But what unfolds over the course of her visit home is even more troubling than anything she’d previously imagined.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is at once a mystery, a coming of age story, and an exploration of how parents’ choices affect their children. Tikka is a compelling narrator, a young girl and then young woman whose outlook on life has been coloured by what transpired in the summer of 1992. Her innocence at the time of the Van Apfel girls’ disappearance has been replaced by hardness, her dreams of a bright, artistic future replaced by a monotonous lived reality. Her return to Australia signifies not only her desire to find out what happened to her friends, but her desperation to forge a different life for herself – one free from the heartbreak of the Van Apfel disappearance.
In alternating timelines – the first in 1992 leading up to the girls’ disappearance and the second in present day – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone examines the exact circumstances surrounding the triple disappearance, reconstructing the languid summer of 1992 and the events that led Ruth Cordelia and Hannah to vanish from their small hometown.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone isn’t wholly unique, sharing several plot points with well-received novels like The Virgin Suicides and All The Missing Girls. Though it delivers in terms of cinematic writing and beautifully created atmosphere, the novel’s ending leaves something to be desired. The story doesn’t feel totally satisfying when complete, and several major moments in the novels feel forced and a bit difficult to believe. The girls in the story, aged from seven to fourteen, act much older than their ages, making it difficult to understand their plights and choices. The choice to hinge the story on the real-life Lindy Chamberlain case feels a bit disingenuous, particularly when it has nothing to do with the overall plot of the novel.
Overall this is a well-written, straightforward read, but likely not the best choice for anyone looking for a complex, detailed crime story or mystery novel. It’s an easy read and McLean’s writing is lovely.