Written by Joan Lindsay
First published 1967; 212 pages
Joan Lindsay's classic suspense novel is set in Victoria, Australia: On Valentine's Day in 1900, several girls from the upper class boarding school Appleyard College picnic with a few of their teachers at a nearby geological formation known as Hanging Rock. Four of the girls and one of the governesses climb the Rock; one girl returns immediately, in a state of terror and unable to remember what happened to her or her companions. After a search, another girl is found, also with no memory of her time on Hanging Rock. The other two girls and their French governess are never seen again; they've vanished without a trace, and the mystery of what happened to them eventually affects everyone connected with the school.
This is another one of those books I've had on my TBR list for decades now -- ever since I saw the 1975 film based on the novel -- and I'm grateful to the Aussie Authors Reading Challenge for finally nudging me into taking it off the shelf. Quite a few reviewers have called Lindsay's book a perfect novel. I wouldn't go that far, but it's certainly a gripping read. Lindsay explores themes of female sexuality, social class differences, and man (or woman) versus nature, at the same time presenting us with a really fascinating mystery.
When the book first appeared, there was some controversy as to how much of it was based on an actual incident, and how much was invented by Lindsay. But the story of the disappearance of the schoolgirls is entirely fictional, although the Hanging Rock formation does exist.
So what did happen to the missing girls and their teacher? Were they kidnapped by an unseen stranger? Possibly abducted by aliens? Were they killed by falling into a hidden crevice in the Rock? Did they slip into a parallel universe? Originally, Lindsay included a final chapter in which the mystery was solved, but removed it before publication. Later, it was published after her death as "The Secret of Hanging Rock." When I finished the novel, I was tempted to track down a copy of that "missing Chapter 18" as it's called; but after giving it a little thought, I've decided I really prefer leaving the mystery unsolved.