Book Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

I think I went about reading this book in the wrong way.

A group of young ladies from a posh boarding school in Australia, two of their teachers, and a driver, spend St. Valentine’s Day having a picnic at a place called Hanging Rock. Before they prepare to leave, four of the girls receive permission to walk a little ways away. One returns in a panic, three do not. In the meantime, one of the teachers has also disappeared. Another group picnicking nearby saw the girls cross a stream but never saw them again.

This is not a mystery and I knew that going into it. The story here is more about the aftermath. How this boarding school falls apart following the disappearances and how various characters react. The headmistress works to hold her business and her legacy together but the tragedy and the mystery of it all threatens at every turn. One of the young men who was last to spot the girls becomes obsessed with the mystery. I sympathize with Michael because knowing there was no solution coming also drove me a little crazy.

I confess that I actually looked the plot of the novel up on Wikipedia because I wanted to know whether or not I was going to be satisfied. I learned that there is an alternate ending that explains what happened to the girls and their instructor but it is so bonkers that it made me feel more annoyed than simply not knowing.

So as a mystery (which it’s not trying to be), the story is a flop. But as an examination of human character, particularly in the face of tragedy and the unknown (which it is), Lindsay’s work is excellent. Her characters felt real and true to their own selves as previously established. There is a wide variety of reactions throughout and I bought each one as it was demonstrated.

As well, the setting of Australia and the juxtaposition between the characters who know the country and consider it home and the rather more posh English imports is fascinating. Lindsay writes of the landscape beautifully – making it seem both appealing and dangerous. The way various characters fit into it or don’t also feels very genuine.

If you’re a reader who wants a solid ending with things tied up neatly, you might find this a frustrating experience. But if you can relax a little and enjoy this story for what it is, it is quite excellent.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay”

    1. Most of the reviews I read are positive but it’s hard to know what to compare this to. It’s not a mystery but it feels very mysterious!

    2. Actually, this does have a du Maurice feel to it. That sort of general feel of unease even when nothing is explicitly wrong on the page. Great use of setting as in Rebecca and also an ambiguous ending.

  1. You’re right about the ‘what really happened ending’ being annoying. I first read this book as a younger teenager and was desperate to learn what had happened, but when the ending came out (by this time I was an older teenager) I felt furious with the author.
    I’ve never been to Hanging Rock but have often seen it from the highway when I travel inland for work. One day I’ll visit… although it won’t be on a Valentine’s Day.

    1. I’d be both very curious to visit it in real life and rather nervous. Which I guess speaks to how well Lindsay creates the atmosphere around Hanging Rock!

    2. A local Hot Rod club have an annual event called The Picnic at Hanging Rock which is always around Valentine’s Day. We’ve never been, mostly because February is our summer and it always seems to be about 40 degrees Celsius whenever The Picnic is on. Anyway, the hot rod run always seems incongruous to me, as I think of the area as being mystical and strange too. One day…

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it despite the lack of a solution. I did exactly the same as you – looked up the bonkers ending and wished I hadn’t! If it’s true, as seems to be rumoured on the internet but not confirmed by any reliable source, that the original publisher insisted on that last chapter being dropped, then Lindsay owes that publisher a real debt of gratitude. I can’t imagine the book would have built anything like the same reputation as a classic had it been published with that ending included. But as it is, yes, it really is an excellent look at characterisation and the effect on people of the huge expanse of the Australian landscape.

    1. It was definitely an interesting look at that time in Australia’s history and that difference between those who were still very English and those who were more Australian as we might think of them today.

      That alternate ending just seems so unconnected to anything that actually happens on the page. As far as the rest of the book tells us, we are in the real world!

  3. I agree, I think this is one where it helps to go in knowing nothing at all – if you are expecting a mystery it will drive you bananas! And yes, I also looked up the mad ending. It made me laugh at its sheer incongruence (or possibly incongruity? I’m never sure which it’s meant to be) – which does not fit at all with the eerie tone of the rest of the book.

    1. Since I read about that ending while I was still around halfway through the book, I tried to look for clues that might make it make sense and even then I found nothing in the book itself that would have pointed to it. Bless whichever editor it was who convinced her to drop that!

  4. I remember reading FictionFan’s review of this awhile ago, and I’m so intrigued (although I’m thinking of it like a mystery). Is it based on a true story? I’m guessing not, but I don’t know why I have that in my head…

    1. It’s a strange one! It sounds like a mystery but it’s really not. Hanging Rock is a real place but I don’t think the story has any grounding in history.

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