It is first and foremost a thrill when one picks up a novel, and immediately spots out immaculate language. It is like rubbing a plum in the market, to notice that the consistency is firm, and the ashy dots on its colours are speckled throughout. It is practically assured that the first taste, if not the consumption of the entire fruit. will be a supple experience. And, so, when I first picked up Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I noticed a phrase like “a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees…” I did not care whether or not the book was a mystery or thriller. I knew Lindsay could write, and that in itself was exuberating.
The book itself – its plot – is about the disappearance of a bunch of girls who attend a boarding school after they go to climb a monolith. What follows after is the search, and the media sensation, and the reactions of the parents, teachers, and other school students. Lindsay goes into the aftermath with strong psychological intuitions. People lose jobs as they most likely would given the circumstance, and certain people commit suicide.
While the book is absolute fiction, Lindsay frames the book as a work of true story, and peppers the narrative with pseudo-historical references. The book had a conclusion as to what had happened to the girls (involving a time warp, and transforming into animals), but this was excised from the final draft. To be honest, I personally like the Aboriginal allusions to the proper ending, as it intertwines the Victorian Australian narrative with the most quintessentially Austrlaian culture, that of the Aboriginal peoples, but I also like the added mystery that comes with not knowing. I think that’s also in essence what has made so many people respond to the book. Because it is so open, Lindsay’s novel has been the subject of much scholarly analysis, and has supposedly become part of Australian folklore.
As I have said already, one of the first things which made me respond to this book was the language. Lindsay can write, and she goes to extra effort to make sure only the most poetically rendered of descriptions stand (as examples, on page 10, she describes the roof as “covered with rime red dust that seeped through the loosely buttoned curtains into eyes and hair,” or on page ). Practically every paragraph has a well thought-out metaphor. Even if you ignore the plot, it is a great book to simply read if one would want to just observe the beauty of the English language, made beautiful, over and over again.
Another thing which I love about the book is the use of humour in the dialogue. The dialogue is so Australian it almost seems like a farce. For example, when Edith explains why she is called Edith, she says “‘Because Edith is my Grandmother’s name… only horses don’t have grandmothers like we do.” and the teacher responds, “‘Oh don’t they just!’” The dialogue is outlandish, and flamboyant, and seems almost to be a depiction of the way Australians speak in cartoons, not necessarily in real life. Of course, one has to remember that this book is set in the early 1900s. It’s not a representation of any shape or form of modern Australia. Given the distance, it is hard to see if Lindsay is relying on a very attuned ear for dialogue, or if she is crafting lines of speech that are only in her imagination. Regardless, I do think it works, because it reminds the reader, almost always, of the quintessential Australian-ness of the situation.
Finally, the book is just densely atmospheric. You can feel at the turn of every page that something bad is about to happen, and you just don’t know what. Mystery creeps into every inch of the dust, every layer of the folds, and it remains that way, even long after the central denouement has occurred. Indeed, from the use of dialogue, to the choice in words, Lindsay’s book is one of the most self-consciously crafted novels I have ever read. And, yet, given the way that so grand of an enigma is created, and yet none of it is revealed, it makes me feel as if all of her effort, so perfectly condensed in under 200 words, has completely paid off.