The Vale Girl

Nelika McDonald

The Vale Girl
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The Vale Girl

Nelika McDonald

Fourteen-year-old Sarah Vale has gone missing in the small town of Banville. She’s the daughter of the town whore so no one seems particularly concerned. No one cares except Tommy Johns, who loves Sarah Vale with all the unadulterated, tentative passion of a teenage boy. He galvanises the town’s policeman Sergeant Henson and, together, they turn the town inside out, searching for the lost girl.

A delicate and layered exploration of secrets and lies, forgotten children and absent parents, and the long shadows of the past.


Nelika McDonald’s debut novel is about a missing girl from a small town in NSW, set in the late ’80s. The author has chosen her era and setting well; the fictional town of Banville feels claustrophobic and hostile to the two teenage misfits who tell much of the story. Sarah Vale, the missing girl, is known as ‘the prostitute’s daughter’. Her friend and the instigator of the search for her is Tommy Johns, ‘the boy with the dead mother’. Tommy explains: ‘everyone in Banville had a little tag like that at the end of their name … the thing that the other residents considered most noteworthy.‘

From an early age Sarah has been helping her alcoholic mother, counting her earnings in the mornings and hiding cash so they can eat and pay bills. The kids at school taunt Sarah, and after being assaulted on the way to school she truants and retreats to her favourite swimming hole at the creek. It’s from here that she disappears, leaving her belongings behind.

Tommy is an intense boy, with an itinerant, heartbroken father who leaves him alone at home for long stretches. Recently his feelings for Sarah have deepened into love, and he raises the alarm when he can’t locate her. He finds an ally in the local policeman, Sergeant Henson, and together they begin to search for the girl no one else seems to care about.

While this is not necessarily ‘crime fiction’, there was enough suspense to keep me reading late into the night. The small-town secrets and entanglements are revealed slowly and cleverly, and many characters are not who they seem. My only criticism was some one-dimensional characterisation, but this did not detract from the plot, or the superb pace of the novel. If you enjoyed Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, I would recommend this title.

Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn and a convenor of Readings’ Contemporary Book Club.

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