Wednesday 24 June 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock

This does feel strange, writing my blog posts in a row on the 20th, knowing they won't appear for a few days. I say 'knowing' - I'm still living in doubt that it will come to fruitition. Hopefully Blogger will prove me wrong... in fact, if anybody is reading this, then I have been proved wrong! As you read this, Col and I will be in deepest, darkest Devon, probably eating an ice cream and reading a book. Actually, those activities rarely go hand-in-hand (pun, if there is one, intended).

My book group in Oxford recently read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. I can't remember whether I suggested it or if it was Angela, our Antipodean member. We were certainly trying to find a classic of Australian fiction to read, having just done Tim Winton's Breath (which is quite good, though also quite a lot of content I shall euphemistically call 'dodgy'). Picnic at Hanging Rock was one which none of us had read, or seen, but which I'd heard lauded a few times.

Oh. My. I warn you that this post contains a few spoilers from the novel, especially towards the end of the post, so don't read beyond the following paragraph if you want to keep the plot unknown.

Only three of us turned up to the meeting to discuss it, and none of us liked it, I'm sorry to say. I thought it a curate's egg; good in places. At the beginning a school party goes into the Australian bush, to see the Hanging Rock (which apparently exists) - four girls wander off, as does a schoolteacher. One of them comes running back in tears, but the others have disappeared. Will they ever return? Dot dot dot.

As premises go, that's pretty promising. I had thought the picnic would occupy the whole novel, but far from it. The rest of the work details the effects of this mystery on the people involved - though not from the perspective of those lost. Again, potentially very interesting. But a big problem with the novel is its myriad styles - sometimes girls' school story, sometimes grisly detective mystery, sometimes Prince and the Pauper-esque in a rather odd storyline about the close bond between an illiterate stablehand and a rich Englishman. A bit like Enid Blyton meets John Grisham meets Mark Twain. And not in a good way. The narrative jumps all over the place, stories and characters picked up and dropped and forgotten.

My overriding issue with Picnic at Hanging Rock, however, is (and this is a huge spoiler, so look away now if you want to) that we never fin
d out what happens to the lost people. A mystery needs a conclusion, in my view of narrative. Apparently this open-endedness is credited with making the book and film a big success, but I just found it unsatisfying. Although it is better than what Joan Lindsay was *going* to put as the ending, later published as The Secret of Hanging Rock - time stands still, corsets hover in mid-air, and the girls turn into lizards. I kid you not. Completely incongruous.

One thing I did like about the novel was the way it was made to seem like fact. Quite a few people I spoke to thought it *was* based on true events - Lindsay is ambivalent in the preface, but uses footnotes and drops hints that it is true, though in fact none of it is. Obviously similar events happened - people going missing, I mean, rather than turning into lizards.

My question - why is this novel an Australian classic? I think it has some good passages, some clever lines, but overall it bears all the marks of an unedited first novel, with the author trying to cram absolutely everything in. Perhaps the film is better, and accounts for the novel's continuing success? I am willing to hear the case for the defence, and I hope somebody here can offer it.


  1. There is a final chapter you know - you can buy it separately at Amazon...

  2. How funny that you should post about this today as we were only talking about the book and film at coffee time in the library yesterday. Julie-Ann (from Aus) says it is a cult classic out there, and very strongly linked to the issues between the native Australians and the rest of the population. I read the book and saw the film aged 12, so I need to read it all again from an adult perspective.

  3. By the way, your attempt at setting your blog to autopilot made me realise that I can do the same, and has enabled me to keep The Pygmy Giant running for the next two weeks in absentia. Thanks, you are good for something :)

  4. I am going to be completely unAustralian and say that I never liked this book either. I plain just didn't get the film - though it was the making of Peter Wier!

    There are far better Aussie 'classics' - admittedly most of the examples I can think of off the top of my head are children's books:
    The Getting of Wisdom
    The Little Bushmaid
    Seven Little Australians

    Adult Australian books I have enjoyed, though I don't know whether they would credit 'classic' next to their names are:

    Fly Away Peter by David Malouf
    Cloudstreet by Tim Winton (it was for high school and took several reads to 'get it')
    Coronation Talkies by Susan Kurosawa - Loved it! See

  5. I saw the film first when I was a teen many years ago, and loved it (watched it several times since, and now have the DVD). The photography is beautiful, and the music especially helps to create the wonderfully eerie atmosphere. The fact that the mystery is unsolved works perfectly in my opinion, and it led me to believe it was indeed based on a true story.

    I bought the book (same edition as you have pictured) not long after I watched the film for the first time, and I liked it too, probably because I could see the film's images in my head as I read along. I have not re-read it since, though.

    Lizards?!?! Oh my...

  6. I've not read this so only just read the first couple of paragraphs, but I have the same edition you have (found at a library sale). I vaguely recall seeing the movie (or part of it) at some point and having felt severely disquieted by it, though now I don't recall details. I do want to read it at some point--I'm mostly curious about what I saw and wanting to know how it ends (or if they even tell you at the end what happens...).


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