I am sure that at some time I have read Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay or seen the film but I could remember very little of it except a feeling of tension. I, therefore, decided to read it when my researches into books from each of the last 60 years turned it up as a possibility. I am very glad that I did – it is a short but very powerful novel.
The book takes place in Australia in 1900. A group of privileged girls, with two of their teachers, travel from their private school to the local beauty spot of Hanging Rock (a real place although none of the events of this book are real). They have a picnic and the girls begin to explore the area. By the time that the picnic should be over several of the girls and one teacher cannot be found – they have totally disappeared.
The disappearance is the main event of the story but the book is actually more about what happens next and how this event affects the lives of a wide variety of people. The owner of the school becomes very frightened and reveals her personal cruelty as the days go on without the girls being found and this then affects one of the pupils who didn’t go on the picnic but who Mrs Applegate doesn’t like. Several of the teachers and some of the servants leave the school. The parents begin to withdraw their children and the reputation of the school plummets although it is clear that it was really only a place for rich parents to keep their daughters out of the way during their teenage years.
A young man who was at the rock at the same time as the girls feels drawn to return and eventually finds one of them who cannot remember anything that happened. The survivor has to make a choice about how she now lives her life and the young man makes decisions about his future too.
You never find out what has happened to the girls (this isn’t a spoiler as I think it is well known) but the author plants plenty of omens and signs – everyone’s watch stops at the rock and this is also a theme afterwards, the survivor does not return with all her clothes, there appears to be a humming in the air and the remaining girls at the school lose their senses.
The big theme of this book is that there is absolutely no mention of the aboriginal inhabitants of the area except one reference to an “abo tracker” whom we never meet. All the characters are white and European and strangers to the area. They aren’t dressed appropriately for the climate and they find it too hot. All the way through you realise that these people know nothing about the land in which they live or the best way to inhabit it.
The tension in this book is not about what happened to the missing girls but what happened to everyone else because they went missing. It’s cleverly written and full of small details, missed opportunities, misunderstandings and a growing sense of menace. The author fills us in on the immediate effects and also the long term effects of this picnic – no one’s life is unchanged and few prosper.
This is a short book and a delight to read. I loved how the author hinted at things rather than detailing them. I enjoyed the different effects that she shows us but obviously felt very sorry for some of the characters where things go badly wrong. I was completely immersed in this story and read it very quickly. Very enjoyable.