Posts Tagged Australia

book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

RATING: ****/5*

Although I read this back in March, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone makes the ideal summer read with its dreamy, cinematic imagery. It reminds me of Jane Campion’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story.

Raised by religious, strict parents, the three Apfel sisters disappear one summer in Australia in 1992—“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.” Were they killed or did they run away? Tikka Malloy was 11 years old in 1992. She and her sister were best friends with the Van Apfel sisters. Tikka returns home because her sister has been diagnosed with cancer. The never-solved disappearance of Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia Van Apfel 20 years ago still haunts Tikka and her sister.

This area of Australia seems one in which children got easily get lost—“Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered out again, but the real excavation world had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbacks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets and craven grey boxes, right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.”

Tikka recalls that summer and the sisters. The Van Apfel family has plenty of dark secrets. Maybe these memories of this friendship and growing up will mean something now to adult Tikka that she’d never recognized as a child. The father seems to have most difficulty controlling middle-sister Cordelia, the most beautiful of the sisters and the most independent. That summer, Cordelia falls out of a tree and breaks her arm. That summer, a new male teacher, named Mr. Avery, arrives at their school. He’s the only male teacher. When Cordelia sleepwalks one night, Mr. Avery brings her back home. She’s only wearing her swimming outfit. Cordelia often talks about getting away from her father. She has a plan to leave.

Then there’s Mr. Van Apfel and his suspicious behavior. He seemed to have the most problems with Cordelia. He cruelly killed her pet mice by pouring bleach on them. Another time, when Cordelia was bathing, Mr. Van Apfel held her head under water “to cast away all her sins. Swimming costume sins. Sleepwalking sins. (Cold-car-engines-in-red-hatchbacks sins.) He was careful to keep her cast arm dry, and it protruded like a plaster periscope. While the rest of her shameful body was submerged and washed clean. Baptism among the bath salts and bubbles.” There’s this particularly creepy memory. On the last day of school, Mr. Van Apfel tells Tikka that Cordelia and Ruth aren’t feeling well and won’t be going. She notices that the seats are folded down in the back of the car and she sees “three long black bags zipped securely to the top.” Chills.

Nuanced and more of a character study and a contemplation on memory and experience, it’s quite the page-turner.

–review by Amy Steele


I received this book for review from Algonquin.



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DVD review: The Road from Coorain

Title: The Road from Coorain
Running time: 97 minutes
MPAA: Not Rated
Release date: March 2, 2010
Studio: Acorn Media
Review source: Acorn Media

The Road from Coorain is a moving and emotional biopic about Jill Ker Conway, one of the most celebrated feminists in Australia. Jill’s childhood in the Outback of Australia in the 1940s proves breathlessly beautiful and extremely isolating. Jill is left to her own devices as her two brothers are sent away to boarding school. She works the sheep ranch with her father and learns to read from her strong-willed, outspoken mother. Jill learns to love the unforgiving land and also dreams of the unknown and faraway places by immersing herself in all the books her mom buys her. Jill’s mother, Eve [Juliet Stevenson], is English and seems to resent being stuck out in the Outback. Eve had been in surgical training when she fell in love with her husband and left that career behind for him. There’s definitely much resentment in that. Eve is a powerful, outspoken woman. Like most mothers, she wants her children to have more success than she ever did. Eve lives vicariously through her children. She verbally abuses Jill and tries everything to put her down and keep her from leaving home. Several catastrophes strike the Ker family. Jill [Katherine Slattery] is resilient but her mother falls to pieces and keeps Jill under wraps until Jill cannot take it anymore and finally breaks free. After attending the University of Sydney and graduating with honors she heads to Harvard to study history. Despite the tragedies in her past, Jill reaches out for independence from her mother and breaks from the bonds of Coorain. She’s highly intelligent and motivated and bound for great things. Ker Conway becomes the first female president of Smith College, publishes several memoirs and anthologies about impressive women. The Road from Coorain has lovely cinematography, an extremely talented cast and a riveting screenplay by Sue Smith that chronicles the independence of a brilliant and talented young woman.

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