Top critical review
Disturbing tale of the disappearance of three sisters
Reviewed in Australia on 8 April 2019
Most of this book is a flashback to a young Australian bush suburb where the three daughters of the fundamentalist Christian Van Apfels disappear. Tikka (who is narrating) and her sister Laura are their friends. There are disturbing hints of sexual behaviour from teacher Mr Avery and from Mr Van Apfel towards middle daughter Cordelia, who is the most stubbornly resistant of the three girls to the fire and brimstone version of Christianity espoused by their parents. This turns out to involve a certain amount of abuse, both physical and psychological. It’s no wonder that Cordelia and the older Hannah decide to run away, or that Laura offers to help them. The youngest, Ruth, is only seven so they don’t plan to take her. The escape plan, timed for a (rather disastrous) school concert in a bush land auditorium, goes wrong. Hannah and Cordelia end up fleeing with no supplies or money and Ruth goes with them. We find out what happened to Ruth but not the others.
Life in a suburb like this is extremely well evoked and this is the most successful part of the novel. The tale is bookended by life in the present as adult Tikka returns from Baltimore to be with her family now that nurse Laura has been diagnosed with cancer. Naturally Tikka is keen to discuss with Laura and her father in particular the complicity of them all in what went on at the Van Apfel’s. This raises very tricky moral questions of course. To what extent do we interfere with parenting practices we disagree with? This part is done well too. What is less successful is the way the book starts and ends. Tikka keeps glimpsing women who might be Cordelia both in the US and Australia. Understandable I guess but somehow ... Well, I don’t know. Perhaps I’m being overly curmudgeonly. Perhaps it’s a 4 star book.