The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

Review by Rose

The natural landscape of River Valley, Australia, evokes a primitive time and place, with its wild tea-trees and paperbarks with bark peeling like thick layers of skin. The bloodwood trees, that on rare instances, open a wound from which a red botanical gum rivulet into the base of the grained trunk, like a trail of blood from a gory crime scene. The clifftops, fissures and abrasive rocks with gaping spaces, that appear capable of swallowing a fragile person whole. McClean describes the stench of decay emanating from this land that penetrates the stifling summer air, distressing the residents of nearby homes.

This natural setting early in the novel, projects a daunting presence, a place that McClean defines as a void, where girls could easily vanish never to be seen again. It symbolises desolation, chaos and the mysterious, wholly detached from societal order. It contrasts ascetically with the settled clustered communities built nearby: the neat brick houses, well-ordered schools, well-lit restaurants and sleek offices; the man-made cultured society. Nonetheless, it’s in this neighbourhood, that a fervently religious father is abusing his three daughters, primarily, Cordelia Van Apfel, a name that invokes aristocratic drama.

The brute in this story is a human being, with authority and power over his children. The mother is silent about the children’s noticeable sufferings. Cordelia, known as Cordie, is spirited, she has a flame thundering inside her soul, one that sizzles as hot as the scorching Australian heat. If she were painted by an artist, the brush would dip into the vivacious oranges and the deepest crimson, her yellow hair would be wild and free as if a breeze had moved across the painter’s canvas. She is impulsive and mystifying with dark secrets as complex as the cloned figures found hidden inside a set of Matryoshka dolls. Everybody notices Cordie, even the strange new male teacher at school. Her personality is illuminated like shooting sparks from a flare thrown high into a pitch-black sky. When she opens her mouth, her words are like firecrackers, taking everyone by surprise with their defiance and singular dialogue.

Tikka Molloy, the narrator, worships her and finds solace in Cordie’s non-conformity and rebellious nature. It is through Molloy’s haunted recollections that Cordie Van Apfel flutters into life. Though Molly struggles to get close to Cordie, as she keeps a sharp space from other people. She is a half-pencilled sketch and deprived, of the rest of the illustration: it is hard for most people to understand her behaviour. Glaciers float inside Cordie’s mind and the iciness of those glaciers, triggered through abuse, push her into risky activities.

One day, all three Van Apfel sisters run away from home, travelling through the wildlands, looking for freedom, over the jagged rocks and crevices, a testament to Cordie’s optimistic fight to escape. This coming of age thriller creates a lingering feeling of melancholia, like listening to a folk ballad about a fated heroine. The author’s skill is generating through the narrative the emotional sensation of loss; of losing something precious that may never be found again. Molloy is haunted by a girl frozen in time. Cordie had a presence that was more vivacious than any other person Molloy meets in adulthood. Molloy’s guilt that she could have done more, leaves her haunted as an adult, seeing Cordie’s yellow hair, smile and walk, in every street she wanders. Ghosts from the past roam through Molloy’s mind, sometimes loud, in stereo, other times, soft, like a sorrowful humming that evokes long lost summers and a girl whose fate would always remain a mystery.

McLean is also adept at making you feel the heat of 'the hottest summer in years'. You feel the heat of the pavement described by characters as they wander round the suburbs, the buzz and bite of insects, the melting icecream and that particular listlessness that comes in summer, that any person once a teenager remembers. She creates that hot atmosphere where confusion can grow, where all characters are affected by the weather. The wealther is theme in this novel and is used cleverly around the plot.

The novel is set at the time of the court case of Azaria Chamberlain, the two month old baby that was killed by a Dingo, so you see this case as another theme in the novel. The case occured in the outback, the wild landscape, demonstrating a familiar theme in the novel, the uncontrollable nature that is set around the nest of modern houses. The case appears on the television and all the teenagers see the events unfold. A story, within a story.

Influences are of course a book I've spoken about before, Picnic at Hanging Rock, the prose is reminsicent of the atmosphere created in 'The Virgin Suicides.' Yet, it has it's own uniqueness, and the story, though clearly influenced by other works, is able to craft it's own space as a coming of age thriller. It's not often you get to read a thriller quite like this, that has that haunting lull of life, and the horrors that lie in surburbia. The eccentric neighbour and the perverted odd new teacher in town, all create a compelling interesting host of seconary characters.

The impact of trauma events during the 'formative years' of growing up are another strong theme. Memory of past events in the teenage years that continue impacting an adult life, Molloy has never found her real place in adulthood, the memories of her teenage years and Cordie are stronger and more vivid, than those memories she has formed as an adult. One could say that her adult life is colourless, compared to her teenage years.

The story addresses the sense of helplessness she felt as a teenager, as she begins to understand that cruel adults exist, as she grows up, and her inablity to change things as a teenager. It's a like watching a car crash but being able to intervene, as an adult would. Molloy also witnesses the other adults in her neighbourhood including her parents, that do not intervene even when the evidence of abuse is right in front of them.