Book review: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Today, I’m doing a book review of Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. This is part of my Book Tour Around the World challenge, and today’s stopover is Australia. This novel(la) tells the story of a young women’s college picnic that goes terribly wrong, as three girls and one of the mistresses disappear.

I have to say beginning to read this book was painful. I was really looking forward to reading it. A mystery that takes place in the early 20th century, beautiful Australian countryside and an oppressive mood of something evil hanging in the air. Just my slice of cake.

I found myself trying to get sucked into the story, which is a good, strong story. Instead, I found myself constantly slapped in the face with another description of just how the water lilies looked that morning, or some other mood-setting exercise. Insufferable, as the characters would say.

I also found it very distracting that the writer switches between viewpoints, even back and forth in the middle of a paragraph. This is called headhopping and I’ve read somewhere that it is a very, very grave beginner’s mistake in the field of fiction writing and no editor will take you seriously if you engage in it.

Personally I don’t think headhopping’s that serious if you only engage in it a little, particularly if it doesn’t confuse the reader, but here I was confused repeatedly. I think the writer was going for an omniscient point-of-view but it caused me to not really feel a connection with any of the characters, apart from the youngest girl Sara. I would have liked reading more about her.

On the plus side, I did enjoy the juxtaposition of the Australian wilderness with the stuffy Englishness. I presume the novel symbolizes the impending separation of the lusty, honest Australia from the dusty British rule. Most of the English characters are either cruel and demanding, like the college headmistress Mrs. Appleyard, or feckless and colorless, like Mike. His attraction to one of the missing girls, Miranda, whom he’d only ever glimpsed at, seems shallow at best and melodramatic at worst. It is probably symbolic of his longing to live a deeper, more purposeful life, also exemplified by his friendship with Albert, the stable boy, who is probably the most likable character in this book.

Most of the college girls and mistresses were rather vague as characters, there were too many of them for such a short novel, there was no real protagonist, and it took me a lot of effort to separate one from the other.

I liked the paranoia and the sense of doom in the novel. No one remembers anything about what happened, no one is told anything, and everyone just fumbles around in the darkness, trying to survive his or her personal nightmare. I suppose this atmosphere is what this book is all about and what has earned it its status as a classic.

During the events in this book, phrenology was still popular. This now-refuted pseudo-scientific theory thought that the form of a person’s head correlated with intellect or personality traits. It was typical at that time to think that beauty and intellect as well as goodness went hand in hand. This is why the female protagonist Miranda (who’s hardly even a protagonist since she disappears at the very beginning, but she is at the center of this tale anyway) is the most beautiful, the smartest and the kindest of them all. The only fat girl in the story is also the stupid and the unpleasant one. Even in the list of characters she is characterized as “the college dunce” and in the beginning of the book one of the pretty girls wonders about her:

Why was it, Irma wondered, that God made some people so plain and disagreeable and others beautiful and kind like Miranda (…)

This is irksome, since it is so untrue and it creates boring, flat characters. But if this is seen as a symbolic tale, then this criticism might not be valid, since symbolic characters are almost necessarily stereotypical.

This book would certainly have worked better for me if I had read it without all the interruptions that are an inseparable part of my reading experience these days. Maybe this is a book that needs to be read in a gazebo by the lake with a tea tray and some water lilies in plain view. I know I had a lot of trouble getting through the first 120 pages, but the rest, read quietly on the sofa with a cup of green tea, made for a pleasant read and opened my eyes to the qualities of this book.

I conclude that this book, like many books written before the invention of television and the consequent shortening of people’s attention spans, is quite a good book if read in a quiet nook with no interruptions.

 

Here is the link to the challenge I mentioned in case you are interested to learn more:

https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/around-the-world-reading-challenge-2015/

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