When I invite guest authors on to my blog to talk about their favourite book set in a school, I pledge to read whichever book they recommended – and I’m so glad I do, because it was pure joy to discover Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, nominated by this month’s guest, Australian novelist Liza Perrat.
There are so many things to love about this story: the well-defined characters, luscious descriptions of the Australian outback setting, the compelling portrait of the oppressive boarding school for girls, place, the mysterious and ambiguous storyline, and the dashes of wry humour. There were also interesting parallels with the real-life story of the infamous dingo baby case, immortalised in the Meryl Streep film A Cry in the Dark.
But let’s find out why Liza loves this book so.
Liza, can you first please share a brief summary of the story?
It was a cloudless summer day in the year nineteen hundred. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three of the girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of Hanging Rock. Further, higher, till at last they disappeared. They never returned…
How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?
Although it’s set in 1900, the book was published in 1967, and I think I was about eleven when I first read it, a few years before the film came out in 1975, which I was really keen to see. I reread Picnic at Hanging Rock last summer, so at age 58.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
I still enjoyed the mystery as much as when I was young. The spooky atmosphere of the setting and story still had me spellbound. I still wanted to know what happened to those missing girls.
When I was young, I remember inventing solutions as to where they might have disappeared: into some fantasy other-world, kidnapped by slave traders, a planned runaway to a new and more exciting life outside of their strict school lives.
This time around, solving the mystery wasn’t important to me; I was satisfied with the open-end story. Naturally, I found the writing and characterisations a little dated this time around, but in general I don’t think my perception of the book changed that much at all, over time.
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author?
What I liked most was the mystery of the story and the ethereal, dreamlike setting.
Of course, being an Aussie, the wild and beautiful Australian bushland setting was very appealing.
I also enjoyed the simple plot which explores four girls going missing from a group picnic, and the subsequent search for them. I liked the author’s easy-to-read style, and loved getting “lost” in the gothic type mystery and setting.
Which character did you identify with?
No-one in particular.
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
Reading it as a youngster, I convinced myself it was a true story (it wasn’t), which brought home to me the fact that people can just disappear off the face of the earth, and nobody ever finds out where they went. That fuelled my life-long interest (a bit of a morbid one, in fact!) of missing persons and all the different scenarios of what might have happened to them.
How did it affect your writing?
It most likely contributed to my tendency towards purple prose! Also that I tend to link characters’ emotions and moods to landscape, flora, fauna and the weather. Of course though, Picnic at Hanging Rock wasn’t the only story that moulded my writing style.
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
A very average public primary and high school, filled with a wide mix of students from all walks of life, and many different races, as is quite usual in Australia.
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
I don’t actually recall any of my friends being as interested in this story as I was. However, I was a bookworm and spent my childhood either doing sport or with my head in a book.
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
Hmm, I’m not sure. Possibly with a niche group of keen readers, as I was, but the story and vocabulary and expressions might seem outdated for many young people. But I could be wrong, since my own children are grown up now, and I have no references as to what young readers enjoy today.
Thank you, Liza, for sharing your passion for the story – I’m so glad to become acquainted with Picnic at Hanging Rock and I am sure I will return to it again.
About Liza Perrat
Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, working as a general nurse and midwife. She has now been living in France for twenty-seven years, where she works as a part-time medical translator and a novelist.
Her latest novel, The Lost Blackbird, tells the story of a different kind of tragedy involving children in Australia – the infamous child migrant scheme. This is just one of her books set in her native country. She also writes novels set in France and is the author of the French historical The Bone Angel series – three stories spanning six hundred years, linked by an ancient bone talisman and bonded by living through turbulent times: the Black Death, the French Revolution, the WWII Nazi Occupation.
I also recommend Liza’s award-winning collection of Australian short stories, Friends and Other Strangers, which you you can read for free when you join her mailing list via her website, www.lizaperrat.com.