Book Review

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

posh ominous australian fiction

cw: suicide ideation

June 14th, Shaftesbury bleedin’ Avenue

I’m in Freud. Remember Freud? That weird little cocktail bar just off Cambridge Circus that felt like somewhere that used to be cool fifteen years ago? Somehow, it’s managed to maintain that vibe since I first slunk into here doe-eyed, floppy-haired, priapic and thick as fucking shit.

Time passes, it has passed and continues to pass.

I just did my first socialising with an old friend since I got back in the country and, afterwards, I feel utterly drained and even more alone than I did before.

It wasn’t here, I walked here from a pub in Vauxhall and ordered a sugary, boozy, icy cocktail and took a piss and sat down and put my headphones on to drown out the melancholy Australian shouting at his friends at the only other occupied table.

I know it’s a Tuesday, but it’s 7pm and back in my day this place would be filled with the pre-theatre hipsters lol. Surely this should be filled with those people now, but old? I mean, I’m here, but my one cocktail isn’t enough to keep a venue like this afloat.

///

I walked over Westminster bridge, along Whitehall, through Trafalgar Square and then up Longacre, then I cut thru Seven Dials and these are just so many streets I strutted before. I’m not srutting now and I don’t know if I’ll ever strut again.

I’m wearing a floral jumpsuit and regularly refreshing the messages app on my phone to see if an events gig this weekend I’ve been chatting about is happening or not. I could do with the money tbh, but I just have no real wish or desire to do anything that ties me here to London.

I don’t want to be here. I wanted to jump off the bridge. I wanted to jump into traffic. I wanted to jump in front of the train. I am not safe here lol.

///

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, a posh Australian who married a posh Englishman, and though that might lead one to expect a very posh novel, one does get a novel with a very posh setting, but – in the grand tradition of late twentieth century media about posh people – the servants (the staff) get equal billing and, of course, much more complexity.

The novel is about a rural girls’ boarding school in Australia in the late Summer of 1900 (which, for some reason (climate change?) happened in February back then), and a picnic to – you guessed it – a local geological landmark known as Hanging Rock.

It is February 14th and the posh girls are all very excited, and accompanied by their hot young French teacher and their dour middle aged spinster Maths teacher on this day trip. Before setting off back to school at the end of the afternoon, four young girls wander a little way up the mountain. One comes back screaming and the rest cannot be found. The maths teacher also disappears in the confusion.

A young English tourist and the coachman he is – disappointingly inexplicitly, Joan Lindsay you lame prude – clearly in love with both see the girls climb the mountain and, when they hear about the disappearance, decide to become amateur mountain rescuers and return to the scene of the mystery, where they find one of the missing girls injured and confused on a ledge.

The other three missing persons are never found, but the scandal continues to spread – students are pulled from the school that let two girls and a teacher disappear on a day trip, and the staff start quitting en masse. One of the departing staff is collected by her brother then they both die in a fire at the motel they stay in on the way home. Another student at the school dies of grief, complications from weird institutionalised corporal punishment or direct murder by the headmistress, and her body is found in the grounds, prompting the headmistress to kill herself by climbing then jumping off the geological landmark where the women disappeared.

There is no explanation, no wrapping up, no twist revelation.

Those who are gone, are gone.

There are lots of animals in unexpected places. A curse seems to spread. There is dread and vagueness. There is-

It’s a mesmerising, atmospheric novel, somehow claustrophobic despite being set in wide, open, landscapes. It’s sinister and disturbing, scary without ever showing anything that could/should be the cause of terror. 

I knew nothing about it going in, I’ve done no research about its contexts or history since. It’s short, it’s engaging, it’s good.

Worth a go. #vaguecore


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