Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Well, having been in a reading slump for most of this month, I don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to which book I would like to review!

I orginally picked up this book after reading about it in the newspaper (how very analog media of me) and its setting of Southern Sydney made me curious. I always like to read books set where I live so this was always going to be one that I looked into!

The synopsis from Goodreads:

‘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.

I enjoyed Tikka as our narrator, I thought her observance of the things going on around her were definitely spot on. She wasn’t too wise for her years and she wasn’t frustratingly simple, either. I also thought, in general, the book captured a suburban Sydney childhood really well, I definitely felt right at home in the story, like I was the one observing the going-ons in the neighbourhood.

The story ticked along more slowly than I would generally prefer. It took me two weeks to read and if I spend more than a week on a book of this size, I get frustrated. I found the descriptions pretty tiresome and the endless dwelling on how hot the summer was just frustrated me: every summer is hotter than the last and that’s all any Sydney-sider knows. Of course, it’s a petty complaint, but nearly every page made mention of the heat and it became quite distracting.

When it comes to the titular Van Apfel girls I am annoyed to admit that I didn’t really care about them all that much. Consider this your low-level spoiler alert: this book has no definitive ending. I don’t mind an open-ended story (I prefer endings with a neat bow but I can handle a bit of mystery) but to make it really effective, you have to make your readers care about the characters. I have questions, of course I do, but I don’t have the kind of curiosity about the girls to sit and debate what has happened to them, why and how.

It has been compared to both The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, neither of which I have read, so I can’t comment on that summation but it did have an air about it that made it feel a little predictable (without there being an ending to predict).

Still, I enjoyed the book enough to give it a fairly average rating of 3 stars. I probably wouldn’t revisit it but I would have no problem passing it onto someone who enjoys stories of this nature.

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