One of our recommended books for 2019 is The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

THE VAN APFEL GIRLS ARE GONE


Tikka Malloy was eleven and one-sixth years old during the long, hot, Australian summer of 1992. The TV news in the background chattered with debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain. That summer was when the Van Apfel sisters–Ruth, Hannah, and the beautiful Cordelia–mysteriously disappeared. Did they just run far away from their harsh, evangelical parents, or were they taken? While the search for the girls united the small community, the mystery of their disappearance was never solved, and Tikka and her older sister, Laura, have been haunted ever since by the loss of their friends and playmates.

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Tikka Malloy was eleven and one-sixth years old during the long, hot, Australian summer of 1992. The TV news in the background chattered with debate about the exoneration of Lindy (“dingo took my baby”) Chamberlain. That summer was when the Van Apfel sisters–Ruth, Hannah, and the beautiful Cordelia–mysteriously disappeared. Did they just run far away from their harsh, evangelical parents, or were they taken? While the search for the girls united the small community, the mystery of their disappearance was never solved, and Tikka and her older sister, Laura, have been haunted ever since by the loss of their friends and playmates.

Now, years later, Tikka has returned home to try to make sense of that strange moment in time.

Part mystery, part darkly comic coming-of-age story, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a page-turning read–with a dark, shimmering absence at its heart.

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  • Algonquin Books
  • Paperback
  • June 2019
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781616209643

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$15.95

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About Felicity McClean

Felicity McLean is the author of The Van Apfel Girls Are GoneFelicity McLean is an author and journalist. Her writing has appeared in major newspapers and magazines, and she has ghostwritten six books. She lives in Australia. This is her first novel.

Praise

“Suspenseful and haunting.”People Magazine

“If there’s a more compelling summer book description than ‘The Virgin Suicides-meets-Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ I don’t know what it would be. Such was the description given to me about this book, and it doesn’t disappoint.”Nylon, Best Books of Summer

“One part mystery, one million parts amazing, this debut from Felicity McLean will be a summer fave.” —Cosmopolitan, Best Books of June

“This brand-new debut novel by Felicity McLean has all of the ingredients of a perfect summer beach read and is one of the most anticipated books to read in 2019: it’s a beautifully written, scenic thriller that’s at once comical and darkly terrifying.” —Readers Digest, Best Books of Summer

“Suffused with the same tantalizing intensity as Picnic at Hanging Rock, it’s the time-slip narrative of three sisters who went missing in the summer of 1992 . . . readers who enjoy something haunting, atmospheric and genuinely mysterious have a treat in store.” The Guardian

“McLean peels back the layers of one scorching Australian summer, revealing the dark secrets and lies hidden behind the cheerful facade of suburbia. This debut, part coming-of-age story and part crime thriller, is both forceful and unnerving.” Publishers Weekly

“The story is a compelling one, with a nice layer of suspense that keeps the pages turning until its hauntingly melancholy end.” Booklist

“A wry, sad coming-of-age story and a well-crafted first novel.” Kirkus Reviews

“This debut coming-of-age mystery is a haunting story of bewilderment and lost innocence . . . The news stories and descriptions evoke 1990s Australia in this engrossing, atmospheric debut. Fans of William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace may want to try.” Library Journal, starred review

“Dashed with the appeal of The Virgin Suicides and Picnic at Hanging Rock, this tense coming-of-age story recounts the mysterious disappearance of three sisters in a small Australian town.”Entertainment Weekly

Excerpt

From The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

by Felicity McLean

The ghost turned up in time for breakfast, summoned by the death rattle of cornflakes in their box.

She arrived on foot. Bare feet. Barelegged and white-knuckled, in a pale cotton nightie that clung to her calves and slipped off one shoulder as jaunty as a hat. Her hair was damp with sleep-sweat—whose wasn’t that summer?—and stiff strands of it fenced in her thirteen-year-old face like blinkers strapped to a colt.

By the time we got there she was already halfway across the cul-de-sac. Her unseeing eyes, her stop-me shuffle, they’d taken her as far as that and she might have made it farther too, if it wasn’t for the car that sat idling at a ninety-degree angle to her path. A right angle made from her wrongs.

The driver’s elbow pointed accusingly out the window and he leaned out and shouted to each neighbor as they arrived on the scene: “She came from nowhere!” As if that was her crime. This girl who appeared from thin air.

We came running when we heard the squeal. Rubber against road. Rhyme against reason. We ran into the street and that’s when we saw her, illuminated against the heat haze and the headlights that hadn’t helped and that weren’t needed anyway now the sun had sat up.

“Cordie! It’s Cordie Van Apfel!”

“Jesus Christ. Is she sleepwalking?”

“Can she hear us? Can she see us, you reckon?”

Then Mr. Van Apfel appeared, stepping forward with his arms outstretched and his palms to the sky as if coming in from the Lord’s outfield. In that instant he blocked the sun. Then he took another step closer and the eclipse was over and the sunshine streamed back in just as sinister as before.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” he declared in his lay-preacher’s soothe. “Nothing to see here.”

*

We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.

Spring slunk off too. Skulked away into the scrub and there, standing in its place, was the summer that scorched the air and burned our nostrils and sealed in the stink. Like the lids on our Tupperware lunchboxes.

“Jade Heddingly says if it gets hot enough your shadow will spontaneously rust,” I reported.

“It’s spontaneously combust!” my sister crowed. “Jade Heddingly is an idiot and so are you, and anyway your shadow can’t combust or rust or nothing. Your shadow is always there, dummy.”

“Not in the dark.”

Mum was right: you can’t see your shadow in the dark. She stood at the kitchen sink ripping the heads off geraniums. Flitch, flitch, flitch. She snapped the dead blooms off at the neck and dropped them into the sink, where their petals were the same color as the scabs we picked off our knees. It was the year the Cold War ended. The year they stopped making Atari 2600s forever. I was eleven and one sixth, but it wasn’t enough. By then we’d learned shadows vanished in the dark.

“What else did Jade tell you?” Laura said.

She waited until Mum went into the laundry before she asked the question, so that the two of us were left alone at the kitchen table, where we were pretending to do our homework.

“About shadows?”

“About anything. Go on, what else did Jade say?”

Jade Heddingly was fourteen, which meant she was old enough to wear braces on her teeth, but not so old that she used those teeth and her tongue and the rest of her mean mouth to stop saying “arks” instead of “ask.” Jade kept saying it wrong long after the rest of us had left behind “hostibul” and “lellow” and all those other word jumbles we said when we were little kids. Why didn’t you arks my opinion? she would whine. As if that would ever make you change your mind.

“What else did Jade say?” I echoed.

“Yeah.”

I leaned in before answering: “She told me that, to hide a dead body you bury it six feet underground, and then bury a dog three feet above that.”

“Why?”

“So that the police sniffer dogs will only dig as far as the dead dog, and they won’t find the body below.”

“That’s gross!” my sister squealed.

“Well, you arksed.”

“Is it true?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Did she say anything else? You know, anything about—you know.”

“Nothing.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I said defensively.

“Jade doesn’t know anything about it,” I added.

She didn’t know nothing about nothing.

*

What we all knew—even as far back as that—was that the valley stank. Jeez, it reeked. It smelled like a sore. Like the something bad had been dug out before the sky was stitched back over, low-slung and bruised and suffocating.

They never did work out why.

It wasn’t Ruth’s fault, but. That valley had smelled bad long before any of the Van Apfel girls ever went missing there. Even from our house high on the western rim, the stench would waft up the gully and smack us in the face on a hot, dry day, and they were all hot, dry days once the Cold War had ended.

That summer was the hottest on record.

Back in those days the valley had only been developed in places. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered up and out again—but the real excavation work had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. It was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbarks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dog roses, and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets, and craven gray boxes—right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.

At school we called the valley the “bum crack.”

We steered clear of the Pryders and the Callum boys and the rest of that handful of kids who lived in the shanty-style shacks in clumps along the valley. You didn’t sit next to a Valley Kid on the bus if you could help it. But the strangest thing about the place wasn’t the kids who lived there. It wasn’t the silence, or the way the sunlight sloped in late in the morning and slid out again as soon as it could in the afternoon. No, the awful part was the shape of the thing. Those terrible, fall-able cliffs. The valley wasn’t V-shaped like normal river valleys—instead the whole canyon was a hollowed-out U. It was almost as wide at the bottom as it was at the top, as if an enormous rock had been chiseled out but somehow we’d gone and lost that too. It was a fat gap. A void.

Even now its geography is only worth mentioning because of what’s not there.

I used to spend hours down there on my own. I’d go when I was bored—when my sister was at Hannah’s—and when the wind was blowing the right way for a change and the stink wasn’t so awful. I’d pick heath flowers and suck the nectar out of their tiny pink throats and then I’d pretend they were poisonous and that I was going to die. Back then dying was nothing to be afraid of. At least, that’s what Hannah once said her dad said, and her dad was told it by God. But then, Hannah’s dad had never actually died and so I’d said: “What would your dad know?”

What none of us knew—what we’ll never know—is what happened to Hannah and Cordie that December.

 

Essay

Archie’s Ghost

An Essay by Felicity McLean

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Douglas Hume, was in his forties he went to a party where the entertainment for the evening was a clairvoyant. The year was 1914 and the world was hurtling irrevocably, drunkenly toward the First World War. In Greenwich, North Sydney, however, my great-grandfather Archibald spent the evening sidestepping the clairvoyant.

It just wasn’t done, in Archie’s book. Sticking your nose into things better left unknown.

Not that Archie had any reason to fear the future, if his experience so far was anything to go by. Archie’s life was a good one. He had a secure job as a clerk. He was happily married. He had three teenage children, the eldest of whom was my grandma Gwen. In fact, the only tragedy to mar Archie’s life was the loss of his first child, a son, who died when his neck was snapped during childbirth. But that had been sixteen years ago, and Archie was learning to live with the loss.

As the party wound down and Archie got ready to go home that night, the clairvoyant, done with palm reading and prophesizing and peering at pulpy tea leaves, cornered Archie by the door. Did he know, the clairvoyant asked, that wherever Archie went at the party that night a young man followed him? My great-grandfather glanced behind in confusion. A young man? Following him? Was the clairvoyant suggesting there was a spy at the party? Surely Archie would have noticed if there was a stranger tailing him. Not if you can’t see him, the clairvoyant said. And she waved to a point just over Archie’s shoulder.

It was only when Archie got away from the din of the party that it occurred to him. A young man. Not quite enlistment age, the clairvoyant had said. A presence that followed him everywhere. Was it possible that it was Archie’s beautiful baby boy, who had died sixteen years ago? Were Archie’s ghosts growing older with him?

The idea that the past travels with us is central to The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone. The novel is a bildungsroman of sorts, as eleven-year-old narrator Tikka Malloy recounts the sweltering summer her three friends disappeared. Hannah, Cordelia, and Ruth Van Apfel vanished during their school’s Showstopper concert by the river, and the circumstances around their disappearance weren’t fully understood. Fast-forward twenty years and Tikka is back home again, no less obsessed with the mystery of the Van Apfel sisters.

For instance, Tikka sees Cordie in the faces of women who walk past. One rainy weekday Cordie is there, sashaying down North Avenue in Baltimore, making her wet way to the Metro station. She materializes at the supermarket checkout. She surfaces in the lane next to Tikka at the pool, her stroke inefficient but beautiful to watch. The only thing is: the Cordie whom Tikka sees is not the child who disappeared in 1992. This Cordelia is a grown woman who has aged in tandem with Tikka. A beguiling specter, reappeared from nowhere.

Just as Tikka travels with her ghosts throughout her life, as a writer I find I carry my “hauntings” with me. The fictional valley in my novel, for example, is geographically similar to the valley in which I grew up. Both are fringe suburbs on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia, surrounded by encroaching bushland. And while my hometown doesn’t have an eerie, unexplained stench that’s only mitigated after three virgins vanish there, the setting for my story was nonetheless informed by my own experiences, and in ways I’m only just beginning to understand.

During the writing of The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone I often visited my parents’ place, high on the western ridgeline overlooking the valley of my childhood. And yet I found I didn’t need to be there to conjure up that landscape. The smells, the colors, the changes in the air—things I didn’t even realize I knew, and that I know only on some intrinsic, subliminal level—had all been absorbed as if by osmosis, passing across the filmy membrane of my memory before setting up camp undetected. Just like Archie with his invisible son, these hauntings aren’t things I can necessarily see, but they’re things I carry around with me all the same. Things that have become part of me.

On a much more prosaic level, however, a childhood spent adventuring in the bush meant I knew that Tikka could safely suck nectar from the pink heath flowers in the valley, because I’d done that a thousand times myself and I hadn’t carked it yet. Similarly, as soon as I slipped into Tikka’s shoes I knew she should first check them for signs of deadly redback spiders, and then watch each footfall carefully for red-bellied black snakes during the warmer part of the day. (The worst, though, are the funnel-web spiders, which can lurk for hours undetected on the bottom of a swimming pool, but then their bite can knock you dead in a matter of minutes.)

In short, I knew the valley was teeming with potential perils for the Van Apfel girls. The trope of the lost child exists in Australian literature with good reason.

Which brings us neatly to the notion of literary hauntings, and there were plenty of these hovering at my shoulder while I wrote. Jeffrey Eugenides’ dreamy The Virgin Suicides. The iconic Australian novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (in which a group of girls and a teacher from their Victorian-era boarding school vanish in the bush, and their disappearance is never resolved). Early readers even suggested that my precocious protagonist, Tikka, has a touch of To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout about her. These are all books that I read, if not for the first time, then with greater appreciation during my years at university. I got my degrees at Sydney University, where I crossed the quad each day under the gaze of a (seemingly antithetical) kangaroo gargoyle. The kangaroo was made of sandstone excavated from Sydney Basin quarries. His wide-eyed stare, evidence of an apparent coke binge, was chiseled into immortality. How that kangaroo, a bizarrely goth version of a quintessentially Australian image, lay dormant in my memory before manifesting itself in the form of The Van Apfel Girls is still a mystery to me.

And yet my novel was very much born of the idea of writing an Australian gothic novel. The concept of gothic literature seems so at odds with our sparkling sunshine, our blisteringly blue skies. But perhaps all this sunlight serves to heighten the shadows. Isn’t the nightmare worse if it unfolds during the day?

Ultimately, what I wanted to create with The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone was an inexplicable mystery. A story that’s unforgettable for what it doesn’t reveal. Ask any self-respecting Alfred Hitchcock fan and they’ll tell you that the deliciousness of his films—the delight—lies in that moment of anticipation. The sharp intake of breath. That sliver between knowing and not knowing.

My great-grandfather Archie understood this, with his aversion to clairvoyance. To some questions, there are no clear answers, and sometimes, it’s better that way.