Friday, 18 October 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, by Felicity McLean.

           Ms McLean has previously written a children’s book and ghostwritten six other works for various celebrities.  This is her first novel, and centres on the families who live in Macedon Close, a cul-de-sac in a quiet, far-flung suburb of Sydney.  Eleven-year-old Tikka Molloy and her older sister Laura are very best friends with the three Van Apfel sisters who live further up the street;  Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth are firmly controlled by their deeply religious parents, especially their father, who appears to model himself on a Biblical prophet of old – and he punishes the girls accordingly.  With his fists, and Cordelia is often a victim of his cruelty ‘because he has to drive the devil out of her’. 
            Sadly, the more he punishes Cordelia, the more she rebels – even when he kills her pet mice and rips her hair out she doesn’t see the error of her ways:  could Cordy be an irretrievably lost soul?
            Tikka and Laura, whose home-life is blessedly normal, do their best to support their friends, even though they are forced to concede that Cordy brings a lot of her father’s biblical wrath purposely upon herself, and her latest trick of flirting with the new replacement teacher is sheer madness – she’s only thirteen!
            But she is their friend, to the extent that when the Van Apfel girls announce they are going to run away, Tikka and Laura will do anything they can to help them – except that the carefully orchestrated escape goes wrong, with tragic results for one of the Van Apfel girls, and twenty years later Tikka, now in her 30’s and working in the States, sees Cordelia look-alikes wherever she goes;  she is unable to forget the events of 1992:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?  Ruth was found, but there has never been a trace of the other two, and Tikka and Laura have never been able to leave the tragedy behind.
            Now Laura has cancer and Tikka comes home to give her family the best of her support, but the mystery still remains, even though the Van Apfel parents are long dead:  what happened to Cordelia and Hannah?
            Ms McLean’s novel works best when narrator Tikka is eleven;  with her shrewd, humorous and knowing gaze, she skewers the everyday – and covert! – behaviour of her neighbours and schoolmates:  no-one is safe from her scrutiny, but it’s a shame that the first and last chapters are overwritten, fraught searches for Cordy:  it’s a literary device that doesn’t work here and I nearly gave up before the third chapter. Happily, Ms McLean gets into her stride and lets Tikka carry the day.  FOUR STARS.      


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