We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
Publishing Info: Penguin, 1967
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .
Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.
Back when I first got my Netflix account where discs were the main platform, I went through a few months where I would request obscure-ish films that maybe I’d heard of, or maybe I stumbled upon. One of those films was “Picnic At Hanging Rock”, an Australian cult classic. When book club decided that our theme this time around was Continents, I was the only person who wanted to call dibs on a continent. That continent/region was Oceania. I eventually settled on “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, knowing full well it would probably be a controversial read as I’m one of the few people who like a good high strangeness thriller in the group. But did that stop me?
Reading “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was a weird and dreamy experience, as author Joan Lindsay has created a story filled with frustrating ambiguity and an ethereal tone. Three star pupils and a chaperone disappear during a picnic in the Australian countryside at a rock formation called Hanging Rock, and while people go searching, mysteries and darkness seem to follow those involved. On its surface the book is a pretty compelling mystery with few answers, though perhaps that’s the point of it. But what struck me more as I was reading it, and this may not even be intentional, is how many themes involving sex, class, colonialism, and nature were just below the surface. In many ways, “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is very of its setting and of its time. The fact that it takes place in an upper class, white boarding school in the middle of the Australian wilderness just screams so many things. Privileged people thinking that nature is their playground, it’s very colonialist and it’s VERY Victorian, so when these women disappear, and most don’t reappear, the shock and disbelief feels very realistic. I’m sure that for these characters, wilderness picnics back in England were very safe, as the terrain and flora and fauna are well known and predictable. But when you apply that complacency to a totally different continent, a continent that is notoriously tricky and dangerous to those who are unfamiliar (or who take it for granted), disaster surely can follow.
On top of that I was deeply intrigued by the various relationships between the characters, and what was said or not said. You have the friendships between the adolescent girls, in particular Sara and Miranda, and how intense they can be (as Sara is deeply dependent on Miranda, so when Miranda goes missing Sara spirals). You have the relationships between the adults and the children, in particular Mrs. Appleyard who seems to loathe all the girls, lest they be wealthy and their families be benefactors. You have the upper class English boy Michael, who is infatuated with Miranda and who has a very macho (homoerotic?) friendship with the lowerclass Australian valet Albert. This was the relationship that was of most interest to me, as Michael doesn’t know shit about the world because of his privilege, and it’s Albert who is almost constantly bailing him out or bringing him back to reality.
And what of the ending? I like ambiguity myself, so I was a-okay with the fact that there are no real answers. At one point Joan Lindsay had a definitive end attached to the story, but was told to leave it out upon publishing. You can find the end if you want definitive answers, but honestly, not knowing, to me, is far more unsettling.
There were a few things that didn’t quite work for me in this book. It’s not a very long book, but it still felt a little extended beyond its means. There was a side plot involving another woman who worked at the school who ends up wanting to leave, and while I understand the point of it, in terms of adding to the tension and the mystery, it felt a little off the beaten path. And while it isn’t surprising, given the time period in which this was written and the setting itself, there was very little mention of the Indigenous Aborigines outside of an ‘abo tracker’ who is sent in to look for the missing girls. A real life tidbit that makes this all the more unsettling is that Hanging Rock is an actual place, its original name Ngannelong (possibly. There may have been a translation issue). It was originally a very important site to the local Aboriginal groups, and now it has basically been overrun by the popularity of this book and film, erasing the importance to the Indigenous people who were there first.
All this said, I mostly enjoyed “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, if only because I found so much hidden beneath the surface. Don’t read this if you want solid answers. But do if you want to be mystified.
Kate’s Rating 7: A dreamy and odd mystery filled with high strangeness and a lot of commentary (be it intentional or not), “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, while a little babbly and in some ways problematic, is still mysterious all these years later.
Book Club Questions
- This takes place at the end of the Victorian Era, during which the idea of Nature was very intriguing to Western cultures. What do you think this story was trying to say about human’s relationship to nature?
- The Appleyard College for Young Ladies is an Upper Class attended boarding school in the Australian countryside. Why do you think having it take place at a wealthy boarding school was the choice Lindsay made?
- This book was chosen as a representation of Oceania, specifically Australia. Do you think that there was anything about this book that could be uniquely Australian?
- What were your thoughts on the relationships between the characters (between the students, between the students in relation to authority figures, friendships, potential romantic relationships – do you think that there were sapphic/romantic/homoerotic elements to this story?)?
- What do you think happened to the people who disappeared at Hanging Rock? Doe it matter? Was the ambiguity frustrating for you?
- There had at one time been an ending that had a solid answer and conclusion as to what happened to the missing women, but has since been left off of the book as it wasn’t part of the original story as published. Would you want to know what happened? Or do you prefer the open ended end?
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” is included on the Goodreads lists “Female Authored Weird Fiction”, and “Best Books Set in Australia”.
Find “Picnic at Hanging Rock” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!
Next Book Club Book: “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings” by Ellen Oh and Elise Chapman (eds.).