Books of wonder: reviewing Ice and Picnic at Hanging Rock

Lindsay when she was about the age of the girls in her novel

There are stupid ideas. And I had one. Why not review two genre-bending works of fiction, both by female British Commonwealth authors, both published in 1967? Won’t the comparisons be fun and informative? And so I sat down to read and review Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Anna Kavan’s Ice. My conclusion? They are both “books of wonder” (to borrow a term I used in a discussion over at SciFi & Scary), but you’re likely to throw one or the other of them across the room after you finish reading them.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is the more familiar, thanks to the 1975 Peter Weir film. Joan Lindsay (1896-1984) was an Australian woman who experimented in various forms before she wrote Hanging Rock. Judging from her Wikipedia entry, she sounds as if she’d have been amusing to know. The novel explored how the inexplicable disappearance of three girls and a schoolmistress on Valentine’s Day, 1900, and the subsequent equally mysterious reappearance of one of the girls, sets off a chain reaction of mostly disastrous consequences for the school they were attending, and the people associated with it. It’s heavily grounded in the Australian physical and social geography of the era.

Anna Kavan

Ice? You’ve heard of it or its author? You were ahead of me. Anna Kavan (1901-1968) was an English woman who became addicted to heroin in the 1920s and who radically changed her personality and writing style when she took the Kavan name from one of her fictional characters in 1939. She seems like the sort of person best described as “high maintenance.” Her novel, if that’s what it is, is about a nightmarish future in which the world is apparently being destroyed by wars while a new ice age is about to destroy all human life for good. The narrator spends most of the story pursuing “the girl,” a very blond, very fragile creature who has been socialized into being a perpetual victim. To the extent it’s grounded in anything real, the story traces its origins to a trip around the world Kavan took at the start of World War II. But in truth, it’s about a surrealistic world. It’s often held to be an allegory of Kavan’s heroin addiction, or a proto-feminist work about how women are degraded by society. Yes, you can read it those ways. And you’ll still be left with issues. It’s not a tidy work that way.

Despite the obvious differences, these two works have something in common. Both are “books of wonder,” engrossed with mysteries. Hanging Rock is about the missing girls: who they were, what happened to them, how they affected others. It’s a mystery set in an ordinary world, and scary for that reason. While the mystery in Ice is the entire surrealistic story. “The girl” is a mystery, the fate of the world is a mystery, the narrator is a mystery, whether any episode is real or a dream is a mystery. It’s about abnormal people in an abnormal world. The scary part? It resembles our own world far, far too often.

The movie version of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which came out in 1975, is so well known it is hard to read the novel without the movie in mind. But do try. Weir’s depiction of innocent teenage female eroticism is so powerful that it makes it hard to see the larger canvas the novel is covering. It’s about relationships of various sorts, many of which have dark edges, leading to the sometime classification of this as a gothic novel.

The cover illustration on the Penguin paperback conveys something of the mood of the book
(Cover art: Hsiao-Ron Cheng)

About the nearest way I could think of how one might film Ice would be to model it on A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel that was adapted into a movie in 2006. That A Scanner Darkly is also about drug addiction is no coincidence. Ice would require layers of reality and unreality in visual terms to convey its nightmare-like qualities.

I’d say people who aren’t bothered by open-ended mysteries, or who like gothic novels, or who want an Australian novel, would all enjoy Picnic at Hanging Rock. While Ice requires a sophisticated taste for surrealism and a nonlinear subjective narrative shaped around what appears to be a violent sexual obsession and a dystopian future. I expect more people would enjoy Hanging Rock than Ice. In fact, I’m hard put to figure out who would enjoy both. Me? I like Hanging Rock, both the novel and the movie, for somewhat different reasons. I’m still trying to figure out my own reaction to Ice. It’s a hard book to categorize, to follow, to enjoy. To the extent I can sympathize with the narrator’s obsession with “the girl,” or understand the bleak view of humanity it offers, I can see depths in it. So I haven’t yet thrown it across the room. And probably won’t.


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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6 Responses to Books of wonder: reviewing Ice and Picnic at Hanging Rock

  1. GracieKat says:

    Ice sounds interesting. I’m not sure if it’s a book that I’d enjoy exactly because I’m not a huge reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Your review has piqued my interest, though, as now I’m curious to see the parallels to modern society. I might have to give it a try one of these days!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      There are recurring themes of passivity and banal cruelty in Kavan’s works, from what I gather. Both are on exhibition here. In some respects, Kavan has caught the atmosphere of war-torn communities quite well. And I imagine some women would find connections with the situation of “the girl,” even if they questioned Kavan’s portrayal of her.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      And for some reason my reply to your comment of today on your blog about PaHR aren’t showing up. So here they are:

      The note to Sara got mislaid by Irish Tom.

      That scene of Irma plays out differently in the movie and book, but in that case I suspect it’s just the way each medium best handles it. In the movie, it’s quite immediate. In the book, it’s actually the build-up to the girls going into hysterics that sets the tone.

      I agree that the men are less affected. Oddly enough, the most peripheral of the main male characters, Albert, is the one whose life changes the most with the money Irma’s father sends him. And Miss Lumley’s brother perishes with her in the hotel fire. There seems to be no connection at all in the magnitude of the change in men’s lives and their role in the events.

      I’d agree Michael is profoundly uninterested in Irma. Part of their relationship is the problem of fantasy. Michael’s fallen in love with an imaginary version of Miranda, whom he never knows. So I suppose it’s fair that Irma falls in love with an imaginary version of Michael! And note it is Michael, not Albert, who is the person who actually rescues her.

      I think Irma, in calling Mike her beloved, is doing to him what he does to Miranda: create a fantasy out of someone who is effectively not available. It’s noteworthy that she comes to this realization after several days of meeting with him, which she clearly enjoys and he does not, but during which nothing of importance is said.

      There’s almost a class divide in the book: the upper classes get courtship, the lower get sex. It’s almost as if there’s no room in the real world for the three who go missing: Miranda’s a fantasy, while Marion and Miss McCraw are intelligent women. Irma’s borderline: definitely more qualified than Edith, but probably more superficial than the three who disappear. She ends up in what was probably a conventional marriage, money on her side to match the title on her husband’s.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    Well, I haven’t read Picnic, but I have seen the movie. A long, long time ago. As to Ice, as I read your review bells started to ring. But again, long, long ago. Then again, I might be muddling two completely different books. Plots that revolved around imminent Ice Age were common in 1960s/70s when the doom & gloom brigade were predicting a return to Ice Age conditions. In fact, the additional burning of fossil fuels was advocated as a means of staving off this inevitable freeze-down. Oh how times change. And it was also a time of, shall we say, experimental works. So maybe it was Ice, and maybe it wasn’t. 🙂

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