THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR

WEAV­ING A TALE THAT HITS CLOSE TO HOME, THIS FIRST-TIME NOV­EL­IST GOT THE PUSH SHE NEEDED FROM AN UN­LIKELY SOURCE

Life & Style Weekend - - BOOK CLUB - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

THE VAN APFEL GIRLS ARE GONE Felic­ity Mclean FOURTH ES­TATE $32.99

When iconic Aus­tralian ac­tor Bryan Brown asks what hap­pens next in your un­formed scrap of a novel, it’s a good sign you’d bet­ter get on and write it.

It was at the Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val in 2016 that ghost­writer Felic­ity Mclean was in­vited to sit on a panel and read a pas­sage from her own dab­blings in fic­tion.

What went on to be­come her de­but novel, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone, got its first pub­lic air­ing, even though it largely ex­isted in Felic­ity’s head at the time.

“I’d only writ­ten about 5000 words or so but I read a pas­sage loosely based on the bush sub­urb of my child­hood and, at the end of it, a tall fig­ure from the front row stood up and asked, ‘But what hap­pened next?’

“It was Bryan Brown. I said to him, ‘That’s a very good ques­tion’.”

What hap­pened next is in­deed the very crux of Mclean’s tale.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is billed as a hy­brid of Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock and The Vir­gin Sui­cides, part mys­tery and part com­ing of age story.

It tells of the dis­ap­pear­ance of three young sis­ters at an out­door school con­cert dur­ing the long, hot sum­mer of 1992 through the voice of Tikka, the child­hood friend still strug­gling with their ab­sence many years later.

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone fol­lows

Aus­tralian fic­tion’s long-held fas­ci­na­tion with the bush as the set­ting for haunt­ing home­grown tales, ev­ery bit as eerie as dark gothic cas­tles and rain-lashed moors.

It is per­haps even more trou­bling for the very or­di­nar­i­ness of the sub­ur­ban life Mclean cre­ates at the edge of it.

“I wanted it to have all the el­e­ments of the quin­tes­sen­tial Aus­tralian child­hood,” she says.

“The ci­cadas, the thongs stick­ing to the bi­tu­men on hot days, Marco Polo in the pool and play­ing un­der the sprin­kler.

“It is in­spired by Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock in that I wanted it to be sus­pense­ful but not gory or vi­o­lent, haunt­ing for what it doesn’t re­veal, as though the dan­ger al­ways hov­ers off the edge of the page.”

It is an im­pres­sive fic­tional de­but af­ter Mclean’s track record as a suc­cess­ful, and aptly un­known, ghost­writer.

Her last book, Body Lengths, was cowrit­ten with for­mer cham­pion swim­mer Leisel Jones and picked up the 2016 Aus­tralian Book Industry’s Reader’s Choice award for Best Small Pub­lisher Adult Book of the Year.

But, as Mclean will at­test, the craft of fic­tion is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent beast.

“Ghost­writ­ing is very good train­ing for fic­tion, but with ghost­writ­ing you need to em­body some­one else’s voice.

“There’s a pre-made plot and even though there’s hours of craft­ing, there’s a struc­ture to work with. Writ­ing fic­tion is very dif­fer­ent. It’s like a jig­saw puzzle and you’re not sure you have all the pieces.”

In­deed, it is the miss­ing pieces that lend the novel its lure.

Tikka Mol­loy re­turns 20 years later to her par­ent’s home, where the events of that sum­mer are clearer than even.

Tikka and her sis­ter were friends with the Van Apfel girls who once lived at the top of their cul-de-sac.

The old­est Hannah, the bold Cordelia and the ir­re­press­ible Ruth are beau­ti­fully drawn, as are the sup­port­ing cast of char­ac­ters who are all the more men­ac­ing for their very fa­mil­iar­ity.

While there’s no es­cap­ing the dark pall of its premise, Mclean’s novel is bal­anced with bleak hu­mour and the en­dear­ing ob­ser­va­tions of Aus­tralian sub­ur­ban life.

“I didn’t re­ally set out to do that but there is hu­mour in there, like the school choir that only knows the one song ‘I am Aus­tralian’,” she says.

“It’s not pos­si­ble to tell an Aus­tralian story with­out a bit of hu­mour, no mat­ter how eerie, dark and creepy the story is.”

Mclean is now em­bark­ing on a ca­reer as a full-time nov­el­ist in her own right, work­ing on her sec­ond book which she says is in its very early stages.

She’s come a long way from squeez­ing in her fic­tion writ­ing be­tween 5-7am be­fore set­tling down to her day job. Bryan Brown has to take some credit for that.

“I WANTED IT TO BE SUS­PENSE­FUL ... HAUNT­ING FOR WHAT IT DOESN’T RE­VEAL, AS THOUGH THE DAN­GER AL­WAYS HOV­ERS OFF THE EDGE OF THE PAGE.”

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