“The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone”: by Felicity McLean. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Copyright 2019. 297 pages. $16 paperback.
Revolving around the friendship of 5 Australian girls during the summer of 1992, “The Van Apfel Girls” is a coming-of-age novel turned thriller that’s permeated by speculation, uncertainty, lost opportunity, and doubt. As an adult, 30-year old Tikka Malloy, an American expatriate, visits her native Australia and remembers her 11th summer spent in the company of her older teenage sister Laura and the three Van Apfel sisters-Hannah, Cordelia, and Ruth.
It was a summer of innocence filled with swimming pools, popsicles, and whispered confidences. But it also presaged the school year in which things began to unravel for the troubled Van Apfel girls. Mr. Van Apfel, a rigid small-town evangelist, inflicts abusive punishments on his young daughters. The Malloy sisters, as their playmates, bear witness to his particular obsession with his beautiful middle daughter, 13-year-old Cordelia.
Cordelia is a free spirit who loves to dance and refuses to be dominated by her controlling father and timid mother. She longs to go on a sleepover with her swim-club girlfriends, but gives everyone a scare when she’s found sleepwalking along a road while the other girls are preoccupied with attempting a séance using a makeshift Ouija board.
Cordelia breaks her arm falling from a tree and misses days of school to the consternation of Tikka, who wants to give her a starring role in a school skit based on the famous Australian Outback case of an infant carried off by wild dingo dogs. Teenage contemporaries whisper that Cordelia might be pregnant and suspect the fall was an attempt at self-harm or inducing a miscarriage.
Things come to a head on the evening of the school performance, when the Van Apfel girls disappear during an evening school performance. The Malloy sisters knew that the two oldest Van Apfels were planning a runaway attempt, but didn’t expect that the teens would be forced to take 7-year-old Ruth with them. Ruth is eventually found drowned and Hannah and Cordelia disappear never to be seen again.
In hindsight, Tikka realizes that she has survivor guilt and that the whole community was culpable in suppressing information that might have led to a happier outcome. The Malloy parents, the nosy neighbor Mrs. McCauley, and the enigmatic schoolteacher Mr. Avery, all had information that might have averted how events transpired. Mr. Avery, an ambiguous character, eventually commits suicide, and Tikka suffers in the present from hallucinations of grown-up Cordelia in the faces of women she sees in crowds.
“The Van Apfel Girls” is a first novel by Sydney author Felicity McLean. It’s themes of communal responsibility, self-forgiveness, repressed memory, and regret form a powerful cocktail set amidst an exotic locale. Sure to hold your interest, this novel was dubbed “one part mystery and one million parts amazing” by Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.