The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The Chamberlain case was the background to my entire childhood. Outside, we had smiling Safety House signs screwed to each letterbox in the street. Every house safe. Every house a refuge. While inside, the court case of a mother alleged to have murdered her child played out each night, in prime time, in the lounge room.

Yes, this is my memory too. And that adults all had an opinion about Lindy Chamberlain. However, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean is not an account of the Chamberlain case. Instead, the case provides an interesting parallel to the fictitious part of this book –  the disappearance of the three Van Apfel sisters, Hannah, the beautiful Cordelia and Ruth.

The story is told from the perspective of Tikka – she’s almost twelve-years-old when the Van Apfel girls go missing, and their disappearance haunts her. Decades later, Tikka returns to her home town, hoping to understand what happened.

Hints about the possible reasons for the girls’ disappearance are dropped early in the story, with two frontrunners – a physically abusive father, also a religious zealot, and a new male teacher at the girls’ school, who seems to be hanging around at unlikely times.

Did McLean lay enough groundwork for these scenarios to be plausible? Yes, in the case of the father but no in the case of the teacher, whose circumstances were a little contrived. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers but with each suspect, the establishment of motive felt obvious and clumsy – I prefer my clues more deftly embedded in the story.

I enjoyed the detail of the girls’ lives – cruising around on bikes, swimming in backyard pools, the excitement of the a school production.

We ran elaborate underwater handstand competitions in the Van Apfel pool that day. First round, second round, best of the best. Our skinny legs stabbing at the sky like the bows of some demented orchestra.

I also enjoyed the well-observed dynamic between Tikka and her older sister, Laura, and between the Van Apfel girls.

My sister’s barometer…had always been two years older, two years superior to mine. And she was right of course, and at the same time she was wrong. I was responsible and not guilty. I was both things, and neither. Like the valley: a thing and a void.

This is a quick, non-taxing read and while enjoyable, it’s not a story that will linger with me.

2.5/5 I had higher hopes.

I received my copy of The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone from the publisher, Harper Collins Australia, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

For a whole week I’d watched our neighbours deliver casseroles and pasta bakes to the Van Apfel front doorstep, laying their colour-coordinated Tupperware on the doormat. Mrs McCausley would have approved of all that Tupperware – she’d sold almost all of it to us.

Even though I don’t believe people would have actually left their Tupperware, I do love a pasta bake. Try this chicken, leek and pea bake.

15 responses

  1. Hey Kate, did you see Anh’s Brush with Fame featuring Lindy Chamberlain? It was excellent:)
    BTW Not everyone had an opinion. I never did. I’ve never felt that I have to have an opinion on everything, and I don’t think people should have opinions based on what they see and hear in the media.

    • I forgot to tape it so will watch on iview.

      I was quite young when the Chamberlain case started. I have vivid memories of my parents and their friends debating it, and that those debates got quite heated. I must ask my mum if that was her memory!

      • I remember teachers at work pontificating about it, and I remember thinking, how can you have an opinion? You weren’t there, you weren’t in court, you’ve never set eyes on the woman!

      • I guess those kinds of cases challenge our understanding and expectations of the social norm, hence why people have an opinion (compared to a cold-blooded murder or crime where there’s less of a ‘it could happen to me’ element). For example, remember how there was so much discussion about how Lindy acted in court? That she wasn’t grieving in the ‘right’ way?

      • Well, yes, there’s always going to be a cohort so limited in its understanding of other people that they really think that their way is the only way. What was peculiar about the Chamberlain case was the way the media fanned it. Not just the tabloids, which you’d expect, but the broadsheets too.

      • Coincidentally, I was at a grief workshop yesterday and the presenter used Lindy as an example of someone whose grief did not fit with Western social expectations (and also Kate McCann).

  2. I’ve read quite a few conflicting reviews on this but the scales are tipping more and more to it not being all that great, something of a let down. I won’t rush out to read it but rather just see if it makes its way into my hands one day.

  3. I had an opinion about Lindy Chamberlain and that was that she was found guilty and therefore probably was guilty. Seems I was wrong. Interesting that both you and Kimbofo have reviewed books based on kidnappings that were current when you were young. Different cases resonate for me, but particularly Graeme Thorne.

    • I read Virgin Suicides so long ago that I wasn’t able to make an informed comparison but I do think this book probably suffered a bit from the shifting timeline – had it stayed with one it may have been punchier.

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