If you grew up in any version of a small Australian country town, this story will resonate with you. What it says, and doesn’t say, sits at the back of your mind and repeats on you after reading.
It is no surprise that this story revolves around the disappearance of three sisters, we know this immediately. But the build up to that moment paints a truly normal example of hot, dry, Australian living that pulls you in and leaves you hunting through the pages for the next dripping of information.
There are so many elements of unknown to this story, but whereas I am sometimes frustrated by this technique, McLean justifies it to the reader. It is so genuinely rural, the nosey neighbour selling Tupperware or the blow in teacher being labelled at once as strange just for committing the crime of being unknown picking you up and placing you in the town in your mind’s eye.
It is hard work to pull off the narrative voice of an 11 year old girl, but Felicity McLean does so incredibly well. You feel genuinely connected to Tikka, our main story teller. Her frustrations and simplistic logic leave you with a crook of a smile as you follow her story.
Particularly well done is the hint of drama, violence or negative going-ons that find their way into Tikka’s life, and how she reconciles them or moves past them with a stoic shrug or a raised eyebrow. While she is from a seemingly comfortable family life, she is decidedly free range as is the norm for children from small country towns. Roaming around areas with her sister and close by neighbours and friends, the Van Apfel Girls, Tikka is exposed to culturally accepted (even expected) violence, socially normalised actions of adults and then the hovering disgruntlement of things just not quite being right, and then required to watch the adults around her dismiss those red alarms while this child watches on perplexed in silence.
Her gaffes and moments of mispeaking are wholesome and relatable and when she justifies her actions and responses it really brought me back to my own rational thought at 11. Her engagements with adults show a girl clever beyond her years but innocent to her core. The disappearance of her friends alter her life course entirely and the discomfort in the untold lingers long in her psyche.
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a true demonstration of human experience. It’s not overly complicated, it doesn’t give you everything you ask of the plot, and yet those decisions by McLean feel entirely purposeful. I finished this book ready to move on from the fatigue of the emotion explored in Tikka’s experience, which is exactly how she as the story teller ended things, ready to move on and let go. Yet it wasn’t heavy reading, as her voice is wholesome and layered with a clarity of youth that helps you to keep moving along.