Title: THE VAN APFEL GIRLS ARE GONE
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
'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.'
So begins Tikka Molloy's recounting of the summer of 1992 - the summer the Van Apfel sisters, Hannah, the beautiful Cordelia and Ruth - disappear.
Eleven and one-sixth years old, Tikka is the precocious narrator of this fabulously endearing coming-of-age story, set in an eerie Australian river valley suburb with an unexplained stench. The Van Apfel girls vanish from the valley during the school's 'Showstopper' concert, held at the outdoor amphitheatre by the river. While the search for the sisters unites the small community on Sydney's urban fringe, the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved forever.
WOW! Just wow! This was easily one of the best psychological thrillers I have read all year! It’s hard to believe that this is the author’s first foray into the mystery genre.
Tikka, who has been haunted by the disappearance of three childhood friends and neighbours, the “Van Apfel girls”, twenty years ago, returns to Australia to support her sister, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Coming back to her small hometown nestled into a narrow river valley out of Sydney brings back many suppressed memories, and she tries to piece together the events leading up to the tragedy, as seen through the eyes of her eleven-year-old self.
Let’s start with the characters: children characters can be so tricky! They are often either too old for their years, or too YA for the adult reader. But these girls were just perfect. They came to life for me as if I had watched them play in the pool, walk down the dusty hot road to school, bicker over their homework. I couldn’t get enough of them. Lately, I have talked a lot about the importance of showing rather than telling, and the author has nailed just that. It was all so vivid, so atmospheric. The small town, its small town politics and gossip, the heat, the flies, the MENACE that was running like a dark undercurrent through it all.
I think the power of this book lay in the things that were left unsaid as much as the things we did get shown. I appreciate that this can be frustrating for some readers who like things tied in neat little bows and tidily resolved at the end. This was not that type of book. But woah – what an emotional impact it had on me. Seen through the eyes of eleven-year-old Tikka, the mystery of the disappearance of the three Van Apfel sisters takes on a whole other dimension than your average thriller. Innocent girl’s eyes, seeing things that she cannot make sense of. Disturbing things. Things that made me gasp out loud and frantically turn the pages. This book really got under my skin!
I think I am rambling. It is impossible to tell you any more without giving something away, so I will leave it at that. Just to say that I absolutely loved every minute of this book. It is still on my mind, and I think it will be for some time yet. It utterly captivated me. I also really enjoyed the backdrop of a hot Aussie summer with the mystery of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain making headlines again. I adored Tikka’s voice, who tells the story from her memory of that long ago summer. I loved the eerie vibe and the menace that overshadowed the storyline, like the stench from the river Tikka describes so vividly.
If you enjoy atmospheric Aussie mysteries, then I highly recommend picking this one up – it has everything I adore in a psychological thriller. I can see why this book has been compared to the old Australian classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, but even though there are some similarities (the mysterious disappearance of three girls, the eerie supernatural vibe of the landscape), this is a book that stands very firmly on its own feet and is quite unlike all of the others I have read this year so far. A definite five-star read for me, and one that I cannot recommend highly enough!
Thank you to Harper Collins Australia for the free copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.