The Van Apfel girls are gone by Felicity McLean
HarperCollins, 2019. ISBN: 9781460755068.
(Age: Adult - Senior secondary) Highly recommended. Tikka Molloy was 11 when the Van Apfel girls, Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth disappear, the mystery of their disappearance remaining unsolved. Recounted in the voice of the young Tikka, the reader is taken to a hot Australian town set on a smelly river. The three girls disappear during a Showstopper concert held by the school, during a skit that Tikka has made up as a diversion for their running away. But they don't find Tikka's sister Laura who has money for them and nobody knows where they have gone. Weeks of searching does not solve the mystery, even though the girls' father is questioned extensively, as is Cordelia's teacher.
When Tikka comes back as an adult to be with Laura who has cancer, she is still haunted by memories of what happened and still often thinks that she sees Cordie as an adult, striding away, blond hair bobbing. She questions whether she and Laura should have told the police that the girls were planning to run away, and even her father feels that he should have done more to stop the domestic violence that Mr Van Apfel used to dominate his family.
The story brings back all the heat of an Australian summer, the swimming in the backyard pools, the casual jealousy of younger siblings for their older sisters, the smell of the river and the end of term school concert. Tikka's childhood comes alive as she describes in her precocious and innocent voice, what happened that summer. The fear that the girls felt as they watched Mr Van Apfel threaten his daughters and poorly understood sexual undertones pervade the story as rumours circulate about Cordie's teacher, leaving the reader wondering who was responsible for the girls' disappearance. Indeed McLean leaves that mystery open to the reader's own interpretation, rather like the mystery in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Part mystery and part coming of age story, this is a story to be savoured and discussed. An essay by Felicity Mclean is available here.