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.
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 find 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.