Saturday, March 30, 2013

Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rockah! and there you are, my perfect little novel! it has been some time since last we've embraced. come, let us reacquaint ourselves.

but what is that you say, and so modestly? what is so perfect about you? 

my sweet darling, don't be so shy! you are indeed a wondrous creation.

here, let me count the ways...

1. your mystery is timeless. three schoolgirls and one schoolmistress disappear on Valentine's Day afternoon, in 1900, in australia, at the mysterious Hanging Rock. where did they go? did Nature take them, as revenge for all the injustices done against her? or perhaps she simply saw four enchanted individuals who belonged to her and not to the worldly world that they seemed to float above? upon their disappearance, a sad and tragic series of events unfolds and broadens, and so the mystery becomes larger... a pattern of sorts is created; many questions rise to the surface of a once-placid community. how do our actions impact others? how does a tragedy reverberate and affect all those connected, how does it resonate in others and bring forth emotions and thoughts and actions that they never knew could exist? the mystery at the heart of this novel is like a stone tossed in a lake: the mystery drops into the water, past the surface, not to be seen again... but the water ripples outward, concentric circles opening wider and wider, that reach so much further beyond that initial impact, that initial drop into the unknown.

2. your prose is lovely. not a single word is out of place. so artful yet never overly mannered, so charming yet never coy or affected, so dry yet never cold-blooded. you manage to be both dreamy and precise. your points are made with nuance and subtlety. you do not hammer away relentlessly but are instead content to murmur your sharp but rather ambiguous comments, all the better for your audience to contemplate them at leisure. you say more in your trim 213 pages than many novels that clock in at over twice your length.

3. your narrative... a jewel box, so compact, and full of intriguing things. and even better, it is a magic box: its interior is larger than its exterior! in just a few pages, here and there, it outlines the lives and futures of a half-dozen characters, in a way that is clear and meaningful and real and often surprisingly ironic. truth be told, your story is an often cruel one, with little or no hope for several of its characters - and yet you note these twists and turns with the lightest of touches. this light touch does not reduce the stories to anecdote, but instead allows these lives, these deaths, these tragically missed opportunities and these happy endings to evoke a fable's simplicity.

4. your characters are only briefly (but efficiently) characterized, and yet they are indelible. here is the boy who is courageous and idealistic and who lives above the world, and who rescued the wrong girl - or at least the wrong girl for him. here is the girl who loved the world around her so much that she could not leave it, and so was rescued, and who then found that the love of her life - that brave rescuer - was not for her. here is the loyal friend, rooted in the physical, rough and shy, an ideal companion for a wistful idealist, a secret and almost unrecognized hero, one who is rewarded beyond his wildest imaginings. here is the tragic sister, a rebel, an artist, an orphan, alone in the world, roughly handled emotionally and physically, yet loved and cared for - but (alas) unknowingly, a wilting flower destined for a flowerbed. and there is our awful villain, Mrs. Appleyard the Headmistress, dour and dreadful, a rather grand contretemps of her own making, a monster come undone.

5. you leave me with that intriguing, unnerving feeling of Wanting To Know More. it is a wonderful thing, and there is so much to consider. most of all: why did those girls and their schoolmarm disappear? you throw out a bold red herring in your varied descriptions of nature being trampled underfoot by clumsy, unknowing humans. perhaps it is Nature's Revenge, you seem to suggest. upon a closer reading, you offer a far more ambiguous yet provocative interpretation, one based upon the nature of those who disappeared: they were not of this world, in spirit or in deed. with this reading, their disappearance becomes less of a tragedy and more of an epiphany... the girls and their mistress have moved beyond us all and our petty concerns; their lives were spent reaching beyond this mortal coil, and so... perhaps they have escaped it, and entered a new realm, a higher plane.

but, in the end, i do not believe the mystery itself is the point of your story. i think that the tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock is less about what has happened and more about what does it all mean... is there a greater implication, a pattern even, to all of our little actions and to all of our little lives, one that exists beyond us, one that connects us to each other and to a world beyond?

here, in your own lovely words, is where i found the true purpose behind your strange, thoughtful tale:
"Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. 'Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?' Marion looked out over her shoulder. 'A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it's probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.' Irma was in no mood for one of Marion's lectures. The ants and their business were dismissed without further comment. Although Irma was aware, for a little while, of a rather curious sound coming up from the plain. Like the beating of far-off drums."
oh, the glorious mystery of it all! but, one may ask, what does it all truly mean? what is the exact point, how does this all add up, what specific message are we supposed to glean? well, my apologies... i am not one to kiss and tell!

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