“More of a simmer situation” – The Van Apfel Girls are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is one of those debuts that isn’t really a debut. Australian author Felicity McLean has stepped out from ghostwriting books (she’s the author of six previous books) to fashion her first full length work of fiction. And what we have here is a little bit Virgin Suicides, a little bit Reservoir 13, a little bit Lantana and a little bit Picnic at Hanging Rock. It describes itself as a thriller, but it isn’t really; it’s more… well, let’s talk about the book some and then we’ll get to what we think the book is.

Tikka Molloy is our narrator, a young lab assistant working in Detroit, called home to the Australian suburb of her youth by a family calamity (her sister Laura has cancer). She’s not been home for eight years or so, and the return stirs up memories of three sisters who she and Laura played with who up and disappeared. What happened to them? Where did they go? As you’d probably expect, McLean doesn’t play an entirely chronological game and so we spend time with Tik as an adult (shopping with her sister, boxing up food for the local foodkitchen with her dad) as well as Tik as a child, playing with the eponymous Van Apfel girls, Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth. We hopscotch between the investigation to find the missing girls and the weeks leading up to their disappearance, Cordelia (or Cordie as she is known) breaking her arm and Tik preparing a short ‘skit’ for inclusion in the end of term showstopper (based around the whole Dingo baby scandal that hums like a low level freezer unit behind the story of the girls’ disappearance). Gradually we start to pick up on Mr Apfel’s religious fervour and the admittedly strange behaviour of a new substitute teacher. Ooooh we wonder. Just what did happen to the girls?

Now, we said that we thought The Van Apfel Girls are Gone isn’t quite a thriller.It certainly has a low level mystery bubbling away throughout proceedings but if you imagine a pot of boiling water, it’s more of a simmer situation. If you looked at a book like the aforementioned Reservoir 13, which is serious and literary and arguably makes you work a little bit for understanding,The Van Apfel Girls are Gone is more mass market appeal. Reservoir 13 by way of Girl on a Train. McLean is to be applauded for resisting explication and easy answers. But the way in which the two grown sisters arrive at acceptance feels a little bit like “hmmm, why didn’t you both just do that years ago?” There are no sudden revelations to speak of, no grand unveilings. As such, the title arguably tells you everything you need to know about the book. Having got from one side to the other I’m left with that slightly unsettled feeling you get from having seen a trailer that shows too much of the film to ever justify actually watching it.

Any Cop?: It’s ok, don’t get us wrong. The central mystery (three disappeared sisters) is certainly enough for a novel but the treatment does the disappearance a slight disservice. The novel as a whole isn’t enough for the mystery. Which probably means it will sell by the bucketload to people who like this kind of thing (this kind of thing being unresolved, ambiguous mysteries that leave the reader feeling all adult and grown-up for not wanting resolution).

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