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. . . .
The first time I read Picnic at Hanging Rock, I was maybe 13 or 14 and had come straight off seeing of the movie of the same name (directed by Peter Weir) on TV. Both the book and the film carry the narrative in a strangely quiet way, trusting the story to invite and beguile readers and viewers for years to come. For me, with my love for all things unexplained and mysterious and slightly supernatural, that made it all the more haunting.
In my recent re-read of the book, I was reminded once again of how the quiet voice of the omnipresent narrator slips past one’s guard. It insinuates itself into one’s thoughts as it tells the story of a women’s school in 1900 Australia. Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the subtleties at play require one’s full attention or you’ll miss the clues that paint the final picture.
There are a variety of characters that work against and play off of each other – from unpleasant and cruel (Mrs. Appleyard), to the ethereal (Miranda), to the lost and hopeless (Sara). And while there are a few male characters one might think of as leads (Arthur and Mike), this is primarily a story about women. It’s about how, in the aftermath of the events at Hanging Rock, their lives change from existing in the protective web of their expected roles in society to the uncertainty of life’s cruelties and uknowns.
Told in the frame-work of being based on actual events, Picnic at Hanging Rock has haunted many readers over the years. It has also inspired many amateur detectives determined to solve the mystery of two missing schoolgirls and their teacher.
In essence, the book and the movie are to 1967 what The Blair Witch Project was to 1999.
My rating: 5 out of 5.