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Eucalyptus: A Novel

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book
A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year
On a property in New South Wales, a widower named Holland lives with his daughter, Ellen. Over the years as she grows into a beautiful woman, Holland plants hundreds of different eucalyptus trees on his land, filling the landscape, making a virtual outdoor museum of trees. When Ellen is nineteen, Holland announces that she may only marry the man who can correctly name the species of each and every gum tree on his property. A strange contest begins, and Ellen is left unmoved by her suitors until she chances on a strange young man resting under the Coolibah tree whose stories will amaze and dazzle her. A modern fairy tale, and an unforgettable love story, that bristles with spiky truths and unexpected wisdom about art, feminine beauty, landscape, and language. Eucalyptus affirms the seductive power of storytelling itself.

“The idea that Holland’s daughter was like the princess locked in the tower of a damp castle was of course false. After all, she was living on a property in western New South Wales.”

Once upon a time, on a property in western New South Wales, a man named Holland plants hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus trees, then decrees that only the suitor who can name each and every one of them will be worthy to marry his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Men try and fail: there is the gentle schoolteacher who “had correctly named eighty-seven eucalypts and was doing it well when he went blank at the fatly handsome Jarrah up against the fence behind the house”; and the New Zealander who “came up against, and was defeated by, one of the many Stringybarks…” Old men, young men, commercial travelers, sheep-shearers–even a “smiling Chinaman … all the way from Darwin.” Not one is successful. Then, one day, along comes Mr. Roy Cave, a man renowned in the eucalyptus world, someone who “employed with lip-smacking relish the terms ‘petiole,’ ‘inflorescences,’ ‘falacte’ and ‘lanceolate,’ and he was also comfortable with ‘sessile’, ‘fusiform’ and ‘conculorous.’”

Even in so wonderfully fractured a fairy tale as Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, it’s obvious that Roy Cave is hardly the stuff romantic dreams are made of. Indeed, despite her father’s warning to “beware of any man who deliberately tells a story,” Ellen’s Prince Charming turns out to be a mysterious young stranger who finds her wandering among her father’s trees and spins her tale after tale, each one tied to a different kind of eucalypt. As the weeks go by, Mr. Cave continues to successfully identify every tree on the property, thus drawing ever closer to his prize. Meanwhile, Ellen’s other suitor captures first her imagination and then her heart with stories of apprentice hairdressers who fall in love with plain-Jane heiresses; solicitors’ daughters involved with married men; and lonely canary breeders who almost find happiness with spinster piano teachers. What all of these off-kilter stories have in common is a theme of missed opportunities, and lovers who realize too late that they were made for each other. Will Ellen, too, end up like one of these the sad-hearted heroines, or will her would-be lover find a way to thwart Mr. Cave’s relentless victory march through the Eucalypts to claim her hand?

There is so much to love about Bail’s novel that it’s difficult to identify exactly which of its qualities make it such a complete delight. Is it Ellen’s “speckled beauty … so covered in small brown-black moles she attracted men, every sort of man”? Is it the detailed descriptions of the landscape? The way Bail uses them to comment on human nature, on the nature of storytelling and of language itself (“a paragraph is not so different from a paddock–similar shape, similar function”)? Or is it the wacky charm of the Scheharezade-like suitor’s urban tales? (“Still in the vicinity of low-height eucalypts he went on to mention, in a thoughtful voice, how in an outer suburb of Hobart an actuary with a well-known insurance company needed a stepladder to woo a widow who passed by his house every day.”) Whatever the source of Bail’s peculiar magic, Eucalyptus casts a spell that will carry readers from first page to last and leave them wishing for a thousand and one more stories just like it. –Alix Wilber

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2 comments to Eucalyptus: A Novel

  • Michael Lima

    Interesting Allegory About Individuality On the surface, Eucalyptus seems to be a fairy tale about a confined “princess” who can only be freed by a “prince” that names all the trees on her property. If one stops at that level, they will probably dwell on the frequent descriptions of eucalyptus that tend to break the story’s narrative flow and the characters that seem a little too sparsely defined. Yet, beyond that basic reading of the text, there is a surprising depth to this book. To put it simply, Eucalyptus is a very interesting and challenging allegory about appreciating individuality.Bail establishes his allegory by showing how his main characters have been primarily defined through speculation and assumption. For example, he depicts how Holland is subjected to conjecture regarding both his relationships and his past. Additionally, Bail describes some assumptions that were present when Holland and his wife first met. Given the prominent role that supposition played in shaping his life, Holland decides that the only man who can have his daughter is one who proves he can see past stereotype in order to appreciate a person’s individuality. Holland attempts to achieve this objective by having his naming contest act as a surrogate for determining if a person can recognize uniqueness. However, Ellen goes beyond her father’s intentions when she falls in love with a man who recognizes the eucalyptus’ individuality by relating a story that reflects each tree’s character. This man doesn’t even have a name, thereby reinforcing Ellen’s ability to see beyond a person’s “title” to that which truly defines them as an individual.By having his heroine fall in love with a person who recognizes each tree’s “story” and not just their name, Bail makes the point that individuality is not just a person’s title. Instead, he shows that individuality is tied to the experiences and stories that make up a person’s existence. The fact that Bail conveys this point with elegant language and interesting trivia just makes the book richer. These elements make Eucalyptus much deeper than a simple fairy tale. In the end, the book is a fascinating examination of what determines individuality and the true way to acknowledge it.

  • "abidjanhogan2"

    A story like no other; fascinating but characters are flat. On many levels this story fascinated me. As a budding writer I was envious of the amazing story which unfolded as I read. As a gardener and naturalist I was fascinated by the details of Australia’s trademark trees and the way they were woven into the story to explain life and people’s relationships with one another. I admired the “simplicity” of the writing style and the brevity of words. However, one thing puzzled me. I couldn’t really get into the heads of the characters and feel what they were feeling. I only experienced their feelings through a kind of misty gauze. Something – a vital link – was missing between reader and characters to complete our understanding, to make our experience of this wonderful story complete. To me, the characters did not fully come to life. However, I have no regrets having read the story. I’m glad I did and have recommended it to others. I am honoured to somehow share the same landscape which had inspired Murray Bail, because like the obsessed characters of this book I too love the many forms the eucalyptus takes across this huge island. And I love his writing style. In a funny way, the flatness of the characters did not spoil my reading of the story, but gave me something to ponder when my reading was complete. What really were their feelings like? How would I have felt if I had been one of them? I can only imagine….and the story will continue to haunt me for years to come. Thanks Murray!

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