“The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone‘ by Felicity McLean is comparable, as the book jacket says, to ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock‘ but also stands strong in its own right. A highly evocative and masterfully rendered work, it seems art to me just as much a story. And I will admit, at the very beginning I struggled with the novel – not because of any fault of the work but because the deeply immersive style of writing is very different from many books I read. While you experience the memories and the current world of the main character, Tikka, she does not ‘explain’ her thoughts, instead providing you with an array of details and vignettes that finally come together to give you the narrative’s form.
For some works I might find this style frustrating, but it’s perfect here. This is a dark dream of a book, an implied nightmare with razor sharp insights to the underneath of suburban life and timeless social issues. As an Australian myself who grew up in the country her depictions were on point, reviving memories of my own. Once I yielded to the beautiful prose it seduced me and I was sad when it ended. Sad that the mystery would remain unsolved – though in some ways it would have felt wrong and unsatisfying for any other outcome. For what Felicity McClean has done here so perfectly is to illustrate the corrosion of secrets kept and memories mis-understood over years. In her work, like life, there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to wrap up the story with a bow at the end.
I remember once reading a story about Michelangelo that when asked how he sculpted David he said something like “I took the stone and chipped away all that wasn’t David.” I don’t know if the story is true, but in some ways I felt like this novel was the literary equivalent of the point just before David emerges fully formed. Still indistinct, a living thing not yet defined, but able to be seen even so: you feel you see David, or in this book you feel you can see what happened to the girls, at least leading up to their disappearance, if not after. But you don’t have all the information, and as Tikka says, no-one ever really knows.
This is a hauntingly beautiful book and one I unreservedly recommend. I look forward to future works from this author. Her vision is something very special indeed.