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
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.”