Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay, 1967

  • Australia, #14
  • Kindle, £4.37
  • Read March 2014
  • Rating 4/5
  • Opening line: “Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.”
  • Recommended for: proper young ladies who read Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier, have a secret love of Unsolved Mysteries, and appreciate the pathos of the opening scene of Carrie but find the rest of the movie lacking in subtlety

What a weird and awesome book. I disliked it at first, finding the dry and flippant tone reminiscent of early Evelyn Waugh but without Waugh’s insightfulness and careful observation to alleviate the sarcasm. The social satire was oddly interspersed with lovingly beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape, with a jarring effect. And yet very quickly—as soon as the party of school girls arrives at Hanging Rock and the central mystery begins, the book begins to work. The alterations of tone serve to unbalance and unsettle the reader, creating a sense of disorientation that works perfectly with the substance of the story.

California 2005
California 2005

There are some mild spoilers in the next paragraph, but nothing that isn’t revealed in the third sentence of the Wikipedia article on the novel. I don’t think reading the next couple of lines will ruin the book for you, but if you’re very strict about knowing absolutely nothing about a book before you read it, stop here.

That being said: do not read this book if you are bothered by questions with no answer. The optional final chapter, which Lindsay’s publisher apparently convinced her not to publish (it was eventually released in 1987, three years after Lindsay’s death), “solves” the mystery in a way that only adds to the confusion. It’s a weird and unsettling addition, but I think the publisher made the right decision. The book stands on its own, and its lack of a traditional resolution only adds to the dreamlike and eerie tone of the story.

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