Thursday, April 9, 2009

Picnic at Hanging Rock

Everybody likes an unsolved mystery. Names like Jack the Ripper and the Marie Celeste never die, but live on in infamy. Every aspect of such cases can be scrutinized, but the fascination remains precisely because we can never know what really happened. In 1969, Australian writer Joan Lindsay decided to create her own literary 'unsolved mystery', with the book Picnic at Hanging Rock.

I'd been trying to track down this now-rare book for ages (ordering it off the internet would have been cheating, obviously). Finally it turned up in my local library. About time, thinks I. But is the book any good?

The basic plot is as ingenious as it is simple. On St. Valentines day in the year 1900, a group of girls from a local school, accompanied by their teachers, visit Hanging Rock, a local beauty spot in Victoria, Australia. Three of the girls and one teacher go climbing on the Rock, and never return. That's it. In order to discuss the book in any depth, I'm going to have to release a pretty major SPOILER right here-


Now here's why the book is so haunting and memorable- the reader never finds out what happens to the missing girls. Search parties scour the Rock to no avail. Police question witnesses and learn nothing useful. This aspect lends the tale a strange kind of authenticity. It reminds me of various 'paranormal vanishings' throughout history that I've read about. What a terrific (and simple) hook. It makes you scour the events surrounding the disappearance for some kind of meaning (as the characters do themselves). Clearly, such a novel is open to a lot of interpretation. Well, roll up your sleeves- here goes.

I reckon that the Appleyard School for Young Ladies (or whatever it's called) serves as a microcosm of Victorian society, except that it's been transplanted to the Australian outback (thus also serving as a metaphor for colonialism. Nice). The headmistress is a stuck-up old tart with her corset pulled too tight, there's no talking without supervision, and gloves may be removed with permission only on the most boiling hot of days. Sounds like the impression we now have of those uptight Victorians, allright.

This aspect of the Victorian psyche I find particularly interesting. They colonised the world, but refused to alter their dress or behaviour while in even the wildest of places. It's as if wherever they went, they had to pretend at all times that they were back in England. Remember in Zulu when the lance-corporal chides one of the privates for having an unbuttoned tunic as they await the zulu charge? 'Where do you think you are, man?', he says to the unfortunate private. That's what I'm talking about (gads, another Zulu reference). Stiff collars and afternoon tea remained the same whatever the situation. When the twenty girls in thick, all-covering white dresses and gloves troop out to Hanging Rock, it's clear that the contradictions boiling just beneath the surface between the wild, untamed continent and the rigid conformity of the colonists are about to come to the surface.

One of the main characters in the novel is the Australian outback itself. The human characters look everywhere for answers after the disappearance, but fail to understand that it's their relationship to this ancient, brooding land that may hold them. It's a living landscape filled with insects, lizards and birds, but this is constantly ignored by the characters. They live on the land, but remain apart from it. I guess eventually, their unwillingness to understand Australia on its own terms was bound to somehow bite them in the arse. Hence the disappearance at the Rock.

As an aside, I'm reminded of a visit I took to Kylemore Abbey in Connemara in Galway a couple of summers ago. It's a fantastic gothic building with huge, well-ordered gardens. The location, however, is an incredibly wild and inhospitable one (it sure seems that way on a rainy day, at least). The contrast between the Victorian ideal of order and the surrounding landscape said a lot about how they thought back then.

I guess another interpretation of the book could be that life is unpredictable, and sometimes weird shit just happens. The remainder of the book focuses on the attempts of the remaining characters to deal with the disappearance. Due to the single inexplicable event, the carefully calculated order present at the beginning of the book begins to descend into chaos.

I was not at all disappointed after finally finding this book. It's all very well-written, and there are enough unusual sub-plots to keep you thinking. Perhaps the answer to the disappearance does lie within the book. Perhaps not. To add to the confusion, Joan Lindsay herself was always ambivalent about whether the book was based on true events (several non-existent newspaper articles are 'referenced' in the novel). Over the years, people have tried to prove that it really is a true story, which only goes to show how we seem to need there to be some mystery in the world.

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