I bought a copy of this book ages ago in the Penguin Australian Classics edition which of course have gorgeous tinted edges and are in beautiful hardcover. This one is particularly whimsical. I’ve always meant to read this book because it is such a well-known Australian story, but I never managed to get around to it until I was invited to an event at the National Library of Australia celebrating 50 years since its publication. Finally, I decided to give this book a go.
“Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay is a novel that’s part historical, part mystery and part Gothic. The story is about a fictional boarding school for girls called Appleyard College in the Mount Macedon region of central Victoria. On Valentines Day in the year 1900, a group of girls go on a picnic to the famous Hanging Rock formation. After a lazy afternoon, four of the girls decide to go for a walk just before it is time to go home. However, when only one of the girls returns in hysterics and it is then discovered that one of the teachers is also missing, a search for the four missing women begins. The incident and the ensuing mystery has a ripple effect on the school, the town and ultimately the reader.
This story is definitely one that has ingrained itself in the Australian psyche and without a doubt has become a cultural phenomenon over the last 50 years. Lindsay has a real gift for capturing the unique beauty of the Australian bush and for maintaining and uncomfortable but irresistible sense of tension throughout the book. It has been 50 years and people are still talking about what happened to those girls. There is a “secret” final chapter that was axed from the book and I truly, truly advise that you avoid it. It adds absolutely nothing to the story.
In my write up of the National Library event, I talk a bit about arguably the biggest flaw in this book which is the complete absence of any kind of Aboriginal recognition. This book was written in the 1960s, 5 years after Aboriginal people were given the right to vote and in the same year as the 1967 Referendum. However, similarly to “The Nargun and the Stars“, it alludes to an ancient historical connectedness with the land without directly acknowledging the Taungurung, Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrrung people who lived in the region for tens of thousands of years before being dispossessed of their land. Perhaps at odds with the subject-matter of a story so concerned with femininity, Hanging Rock was in fact originally a sacred site for male initiation.
Ultimately though, this is a fascinating book that covers a wide range of themes including female sexuality, schooling, class, time and the harsh Australian landscape. It is an engrossing read that 50 years on shines a light on the Missing White Woman Syndrome and plays on the public’s sordid fascination with unsolved crimes.
I didn’t have high expectations for this book. Yet another immigration-themed novel, but this time set in Australia, “The Harp in the South” by Ruth Park is one of the Penguin Australia Classics and is a gorgeous-looking hardcover with bright red pages.
“The Harp in the South” is about Irish immigrant family, the Darcys. In the poverty-stricken area of Sydney known as Shanty Town (Surry Hills), pious Mumma, drunk Hughie and their daughters Roie and Dolour live at number Twelve-and-a-Half Plymouth Street. They share their rather squalid home with tenants, but things get even more crowded when Grandma moves in.
When I first started reading this book, it was with the critical eye of someone living in 2015 and I found myself cringing often, particularly at some of the racial descriptions of the characters such as Lick Jimmy. However, if you take into account that it was originally published in 1948, “The Harp in the South” is actually a pioneer of social justice for its time. It shows multiculturalism in a positive light while the White Australia Policy was still in full swing. It contains positive depictions of an Aboriginal character when Aboriginal people were largely absent from mainstream literature. There are progressive and honest attitudes about sex including suggestions about the importance of consent and that sex work (and the people in the industry) is not necessarily immoral.
There is no question that Park, a professional journalist, had a keen eye for observation. Through her writing, she encourages the reader to look past poverty and see humanity; see exactly the same trials and tribulations we all face as people, regardless of our background. However she also makes it impossible to dismiss the characters because of their socio-economic status, and forces the reader to acknowledge the complexity of factors that cause and maintain poverty.
While an impressive novel for its time, this book isn’t perfect. Although complex, the characters at times do seem a bit like caricatures. Although progressive, there are still some things in there that are pretty cringeworthy by today’s standards. Finally, while it is a fantastic insight into poor Australian life in the 1940s, the attention to detail and day-to-day conversation does sometimes get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, “The Harp in the South” is a great piece of Australian literature and a fantastic insight into the post-war immigration boom.
I knew very little about this book when I bought it. I was captivated by its beautiful hardcover and tinted edges as one of the Penguin Australian Classics currently available at the National Library of Australia’s bookshop. I took it with me to read when I went to a festival out past Ipswitch, Queensland and reading about the hard life and unforgiving landscape was a stark contracts to the lush, hedonistic, semi-glamping experience that was my weekend.
Originally published in 1981, “A Fortunate Life” is the autobiography of Australian war veteran A. B. Facey. It chronicles his incredibly difficult childhood in rural Western Australia, his experiences in Gallipoli, and his life after returning to Australia. The picture Facey paints of life as a settler and farmer in Australia at the turn of the 20th century is very bleak. The systems in place to protect children from abuse and exploitation today simply did not exist in Facey’s time, and it was astonishing to me the amount of power his mother wielded over his life despite not having seen him since he was 2 years old.
Denied the right to go to school, Facey was illiterate until late childhood and his ability to read and write was mostly self taught. In a way, his writing style could be described as childish or simplistic, as though even as an older man he had never truly become fluent in the written word. While perhaps not beautifully written, Facey’s story is honest and heartfelt and his descriptions of his life are detailed and immersive.
Interestingly, his childhood and his recollections of his time at war make up well over half the novel, even though they made up only a quarter of his life. After Facey’s return from Gallipoli, the novel feels a little rushed. While there are more than a few indications that these were the happiest times of his life, Facey skims through them. This was a little disappointing for a reader who really wanted to see Bert get some wins. He also touches on his political and religious beliefs somewhat in this part of the book, but they seem a little disconnected from the story overall.
Ultimately though, this is a book that really speaks for itself. Facey was clearly a man with boundless courage and optimism who met challenges and adversity face-on and managed to carve himself a niche in a hostile land. It was incredible the things he was able to learn and contribute despite being unable to read and write, and his knowledge and expertise was valued and rewarded many times over. His tenacity really shines through, and the fact that he managed to write the book at all despite missing out on opportunities that all children should have is a testimony to his perseverance. An admirable contribution to Australian literature.