Goodreads: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Age Category: Adult
(From the Penguin Classics edition)
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.
Picnic at Hanging Rock is billed as a haunting classic, a story about three teens who disappeared in the Australian Bush while on a school picnic, under mysterious circumstances the other characters — and the readers — struggle to explain. While I did finish the book quickly, in a vague sense of wanting to know what was happening, I unfortunately did not find the story as intriguing as I’d hoped. I can see how the story is sad, young girls with lots of potential wandering off and assumed to be dead with no real closure for their friends or family, but I don’t think the effect is really as mysterious or gripping for the outside reader as the author probably hoped.
I don’t want to spoil the book in any sense, but I have to say that, just from reading the summary, my guess at why three people died in the wilderness is . . . they probably just got lost and died of exposure? So the author had a challenge from the start in trying to make this any sort of compelling mystery. Now, there is the question of how three whole people might have gotten lost, and the book adds in some thought-provoking details to have one ponder what might have happened, from other characters being tangentially involved to things the girls saw on their way up the rock, etc. In the end, however, I just don’t think the book is overly mysterious, and I think publishers might have more success trying to market it as something else.
Arguably, the real story is about what happens in the lives of the other characters, the ones left behind to wonder what happened, to wish they could help, to ponder if they could have stopped this — and to live with the consequences that three girls have gone missing from what was previously a well-respected school. The headmistress has a lot to deal with in this vein, in terms of communicating with parents, trying to keep students enrolled in the school if parents will think it’s unsafe, etc. This is all interesting, and my only real gripe is that the author ruins the effect by MULTIPLE TIMES interjecting with a narrative voice that explicitly says things like, “And so we see how the ripples of this event affected people around the girls, even tangential characters not initially involved.” I got that point without the author saying it, and she certainly didn’t need to say it at least four times.
I do think parts of this book will stick in my mind for a while, which is definitely a sing it made some kind of impact on me. Yet if I had to describe it, I’d say I found it slightly dull, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone else to read. It was fine, and I’m glad to have read a classic I’ve never read before, but it just wasn’t a standout for me.