This mysterious and atmospheric story begins with the careful preparations for a picnic for the students of a posh girls' boarding school located in the countryside near Melbourne in 1900. After a meal at the picnic grounds of a local rock formation called Hanging Rock, four girls begin to climb to the rocks with admonitions to return within the hour. Three of the girls are the smartest, most beloved, most beautiful girls, while the other is described as the college dunce. Much later, Edith, the dunce, returns hysterical and unable to say what happened to the others. At some unknown point, one of the two teachers along on the trip also disappeared.
A week later Irma, the richest and most beautiful of the girls, was recovered through the efforts of a young man visiting his uncle who lives in the area, along with his pal, who looks after the uncle's horses. She is unaccountably missing her corset, and while her hands are scratched and bleeding, her bare feet are untouched. And like Edith, she does not remember anything that happened after the girls began climbing toward the rocks.
Although great efforts are made to find the others, not a trace is discovered. The papers are full of the story and the school implodes in short order; the innocent as well as the meanest members of the school community suffer alike.
The book was made into the well-known movie in 1975 by Peter Weir that is credited with kick-starting the Australian film industry. It is the eerie and haunting nature of the story that makes it so appealing. The story is told as if it happened, and people began to believe it did. Interest in the location grew significantly.
And then there's the last chapter of the book that was left out at the suggestion of the publisher. They believed that it took the mystery out of the story and that if it had been included, the film would not have been made. Apparently Lindsay had misgivings about removing the chapter, and gave it to her literary agent John Taylor to publish after her death. Well, fortunately for me, the university library had a copy of this chapter. Rather than ruining the mystery, it hinted at ways to think about how people might vanish into thin air. I found it a satisfying way to end a wonderful read.