Picnic at Hanging Rock

Posted: May 24, 2019 in Book reviews
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71xqeY6UPhL.jpgBy Joan Lindsay

It’s Valentine’s Day 1900, and in Australia the girls of Appleyard College, a private boarding school, undertake a picnic to Hanging Rock, a distinctive geological formation created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. During the afternoon four students wander off to climb the rocks. Eventually one of the girls returns, distraught and dishevelled. A search is conducted but no trace of the girls is found, and in addition it’s discovered that one of the teachers is missing too.

As the days pass the search becomes more and more intense, but even after one of the girls is found the mystery is no nearer to being unravelled. Did they fall and die in an ancient cave, were they carried away by nefarious individuals intent on rape and murder, or is there a more mystical explanation?

We may never know, but the disappearances hang heavy over the staff and pupils of the school, as well as a young Englishman who was almost the last person to see the girls, and tragedy will follow tragedy, because with no resolution in sight, can anyone really move on?

 

I half remember watching the film as a child (and probably being unimpressed because there was no grand reveal) but this may be a fake memory for all I know. I do know that the tale of Australian schoolgirls going missing in the outback seeped into my consciousness, especially since it became apparent that it was a true story.

Except of course it isn’t, that was just a literary trick of author Lindsay, the 1960s equivalent of Myrick and Sanchez insisting that three students really had wandered into the woods in search of the Blair Witch and vanished into thin air.

It’s a heck of a good device however, and the book is peppered with pseudo journalistic prose.

Even after reading it I’m unsure whether I liked it. In very real terms you can argue not much happens, the disappearances happen very early on and (spoiler) the mystery is never resolved (There is a missing chapter that provides far more of an explanation-more on that later). For much of the book, which is lean but not a quick read, it’s more about the effect the disappearances have on everyone else.

Still it has kind stuck with me. There’s a dreamlike quality to some of the prose, and a fascination with nature that’s a little unsettling, and Lindsay does sprinkle tiny clues here and there. The fact that watches stop working near to the rock formation, the fact that the missing teacher, Miss McCraw, is a mathematician obsessed with finding short cuts, a death later on that its never clear whether is murder or suicide, and the sense of dread hanging over the school, as if everyone is somehow cursed.

Lindsay is prone to waffle at times, and though it becomes clearer later on, initially it’s difficult to determine who various people are, despite a list of characters at the start of the kind you might find in a play, and the fact that two of the missing girls are Miranda and Marion doesn’t help.

Lindsay does catch you off guard, in particular the return of the one girl who’s found to school does not go remotely as I’d have imagined.

A book that’s as intriguing as it is infuriating.

* * *

Ok, now a few spoilery bits

The missing chapter, which I’ve only read a precis of, seems to make it abundantly clear that the girls travel through some kind of time warp, possibly even transforming into animals as they go (very aboriginal). Still this leaves questions. The girls meet a woman they don’t recognise but it must obviously be Miss McCraw, except she doesn’t recognise them and vice versa, could it be that she’s been in this other world far longer? Enough time to lose her mind and become unrecognisable to the girls? And where does this leave Irma, the girl who’s found, how come she isn’t discovered during the initial search? Was she caught up in some other time, and spat back out later?

I can see why her editor suggested excising the chapter, the best mystery is one that isn’t explained after all.

A couple of other points. First is Mike’s failed romance with Irma. The book suggests he steps away from her because it’s Miranda he was drawn to (as it seems is everyone) and in many respects he’s clearly guilt-ridden for feeling that he rescued the wrong girl, but I wonder if Lindsay had more at play here. Mike’s friendship with his uncle’s coachman, Albert, is quite intense, and remember, though Mike heads off to the Northern territories, he’s quite insistent that he wants Albert to go with him, so are they merely friends, or something more, something neither man could admit to?

There’s certainly a homoerotic undercurrent at work in the book, as I’ve said everyone seems enraptured by Miranda, and again this seems to go beyond friendship in the case of some of the girls.

Finally there’s the mystery of what happens to Sara, the orphan Mrs Appleyard, who’s never presented as anything but a nasty piece of work, detests. At first I thought Mrs Appleyard killed her, but in hindsight I realise we’re supposed to realise Sara killed herself, which explains why Mrs Appleyard was searching her room, she was looking for the suicide note.

Mrs Appleyard does at least get her comeuppance, making her way to the Hanging Rock and hurling herself from its heights. I wonder though, was her intention suicide, or was she hoping to escape her many problems by somehow following the girls and Miss McCraw to wherever, or whenever, they ended up?

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