Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.
Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) is one of my more recent favourite novels having first read it in 2015 after the people I follow on Tumblr seemed to go through a phase of putting gifs on from the 1975 film directed by Peter Weir (a film that would inspire designer Alexander McQueen's spring 2005 ready-to-wear collection and, more recently, Raf Simons' spring 2015 ready-to-wear collection for Dior). I saw the film and loved it (though it was very much of its time - all misty shots and panpipes) and decided shortly after to read the book. I really do love Picnic at Hanging Rock, it's such an odd book, so other-wordly, dreamy, and beautiful, but the subject matter is pretty disturbing stuff. In a way it actually reminded me of Nabokov's Lolita (1955) in which Nabokov challenges the reader to see the ugly disguised in beautiful prose. Picnic at Hanging Rock had elements of that.
The story is set in Appleyard College, near Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. It begins on Valentine's Day - the pupils, all girls, are excited to be going on a picnic and have been sending each other Valentine's Day cards. When they arrive at Hanging Rock they eat their picnic and laze around, enjoying the sun and scenery, then four of the girls, Miranda, Edith, Irma, and Marion, later followed by a teacher, Greta McCraw, walk up the rock. Whilst they're gone, several characters notice their watches have stopped on 12 o' clock; at some point later, Edith returns, hysterical and confused: Miranda, Irma, Marion, and Miss McCraw are no where to be seen despite extensive searching. Eventually the party must return back to the school, and in the coming weeks the police and members of the community continue the search. After that, only Irma is found, but with no memory whatsoever of what transpired at Hanging Rock.
Apart from the mystery itself, the remainder of the book is taken up by people's reaction to the loss of their friends in such bizarre circumstances as well as attempting to solve the mystery, and, at the same time coming to terms with their lives, completely changed by the events at Hanging Rock, and we find some characters able and others unable to cope. The novel is presented as fact, making it quite an uncomfortable read and giving it more sense of gravitas, but even if this were not the case it is still an incredible and engaging story, perhaps a little too much so for my impatient self rushing to get to the end of the story! It is so beautiful and moving with breathtaking descriptions of the scenery and the raw emotions of many of the characters who came to be involved. Above all else it's a mystery, and even the nature of the mystery is uncertain: is it a murder mystery? paranormal? an unfortunate accident? It's a novel that draws you in then brushes you aside, which, I won't deny, is frustrating, but the mystery of the picnic at hanging rock is an eternal and very haunting one. I will be forever baffled by it.
To finish, here's a few of those gifs I mentioned that inspired me to read it: