Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

20 February 2014
Written by Diana Kenny
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Diana Kenny reviews the acclaimed  'Eucalyptus',  a modern day fable recast in a rural Australian setting - an enchanting story of love, beauty and betrayal 

It is at this time of the year that I look over the books I plan to read in the coming months, those received as Christmas and birthday presents as well as recommendations lent by friends.  As I looked at the latest Christmas offering from my brother’s partner (who lives in Australia) I recalled all the great books I’ve received from her over the years, of which Eucalyptus by Murray Bail is one of my favourites.

Eucalyptus is a fable, a fairy story entwining a father (Holland), his land, his obsession with Eucalyptus and his beautiful (she has to be beautiful, it’s a fairy story) daughter. When his wife, whom he met through an advertisement placed by her father, dies in childbirth, Holland is in a quandary. He had placed all his money on a bet that she would bear twins, which she does, but both his wife and son die, leaving him with his daughter Ellen and a large amount of money.

Holland travels to a country area west of Sydney where he buys a piece of property and while his daughter is at school in Sydney he begins the planting one of every species of Eucalyptus he can find.  He then brings Ellen home from school and together they live on the land, all the while he tells her stories of his life and her mother.  When the inevitable happens and Ellen is of a marriageable age Holland is unable to decide how to proceed.  

He resolves that the man who can correctly name all of the more than 500 species in his “museum of trees” can claim Ellen’s hand. Spurred on by stories of her beauty, suitors come from far and wide but soon fail until the elderly Mr Cave, an expert in Eucalyptus, comes upon the scene and starts to command the field.

The gums have wonderful Latin and colloquial names and as she watches Mr Cave from her hiding place wandering thorough the paddocks with her father, Ellen meets a stranger. A story-teller, who in the manner of the Arabian Nights begins to tell her tales with the names of the gums as inspiration, stories with very abrupt endings and just as abruptly the stranger always disappears just as she wants to know more.

Mr Cave is nearing the prize and along with her father, Ellen is bound by the promise of matrimony.

This book celebrates Australia, the outback, the people and of course the trees. The language is beautiful, the idea quirky, but Bail, certainly to my mind anyway, carries it off in great style.

To quote the Daily Telegraph:

”Magical” is a tricky word to use about a work of fiction.  It carries resonances of something fey, insubstantial and whimsical. Eucalyptus, however, is that rare thing; a book whose author has succeeded in harnessing the seductive format of the fairy story and transforming it into something quite distinctive – neither fantastical nor realistic, but an elegant, humane, funny and wise journey to the interior of the human heart.”

In 2004 Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman expressed interest in making a film of the book. So far nothing has come of it unfortunately as I could well imagine them both in the roles.


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