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In which Netty goes for a nice little wander through Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus …

July 3, 2013

ImageI don’t know much about botany. Actually, let me be a bit more specific here – I don’t know anything at all about botany. I mean, I can identify quite a few different species of flowers, and considerably less than that of trees, but overall it is not a discipline that crosses my radar, well, ever, really.

I also don’t know how much Australian author Murray Bail knew about botany before he wrote his 1999 Miles Franklin award-winning Eucalyptus. Did the novel’s premise come about because Bail is, was or would have liked to be a horticulturalist? Or an arborist? Or is he simply just a keen fancier of our best-known native fauna?

Regardless, there is no doubt that Bail would now have to at least be some sort of quasi-expert on eucalypts. That’s because this book is full of ‘em, along with quite specific information on dozens of different species. Did you know there are around 700 different types of eucalypts, which, although they are primarily native to Australia, can be found throughout the world, including a handful stationed solely outside our continent?  Nope, me neither.  And here I was thinking I was settling in to read a simplistic, Australian-set love story …

Because Eucalyptus is a love story, on several different levels. There is the love of a former city slicker who has embraced the country and in the process become fascinated by eucalypts, setting out to propagate his entire property with hundreds of them, of hundreds of different species. The love of a father for his daughter and only child. And it’s the story of a young girl burgeoning into womanhood, negotiating a tricky path between loosing the ties of her adoring, protective dad and finding her own way in matters of the heart.

Holland – his first name is never revealed – is a Sydneysider widower who inherits (at least, I think he does – like quite a few things in the book, sometimes it’s all a bit vague) a large property in rural western New South Wales. He brings his daughter, Ellen, to live with him. She grows into a great beauty, famed throughout the districts. When Ellen is 19, her father publicly announces – to her chagrin – that the man who wins her hand has to first correctly name the 500-odd species of eucalypts on his property. It attracts men from far and wide, but no one proves even close to being up to the task – until an older man named Roy Cave throws his hat into the ring. He proves an adept expert who relishes the task at hand and simultaneously endears himself to Holland; it is obvious he is going to eventually achieve the goal.

Ellen is not thrilled at the prospect of being betrothed to the polite, slightly pompous, otherwise somewhat dull man who is old enough to be her father. Then, on a walk through the property, she comes across a stranger who initially intrigues her, then beguiles her with the tales with which he regales her during meetings that quickly become a daily occurrence. As Ellen hurtles towards a future pre-planned by her father, she begins to see an entirely different path opening up before her eyes.   

There is a fairytale quality about the prose, the early pages of which are peppered with phrases such as “in the beginning” and “once upon a time”. The nature of the book’s central premise has echoes of many female-centric, traditional fairytale scenarios; as Mr Cave and Holland traverse the farm, Ellen keeps watch from her tree “tower” on the property; the unnamed stranger captivates her with his stories. And there are plenty of somewhat moon-eyed descriptions of Ellen’s “speckled” beauty (a phrase repeated throughout the book almost to the point of ad nauseum), although Bail is aware enough to actually go to the trouble of pointing out, in chapter four, that “the idea that Holland’s daughter was like the princess locked in the tower of a damp castle was of course false”.

But the novel’s dreamlike, sometimes fantastical qualities cannot be denied, and are a big part of its overall charm. It is evocative, particularly in its descriptions of the land. You can almost smell the bush, hear the crackle of leaves under your feet, feel the heat as the characters trudge through the property, naming the eucalypts one by one. It is also remarkably seamless for a book that skips between the present and the past, interspersing factual descriptions of the fauna with the myriad tales told by Ellen’s unnamed suitor.

Eucalyptus was famously set to be filmed in the early 2000s – which is actually why I bought the book when I did; I don’t like film tie-in editions, so was keen to get a first-edition original instead of one with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman (the planned co-stars) emblazoned on the cover. The film subsequently fell over and has not been resurrected, so the film-tie edition never arrived on bookshop shelves; meanwhile my copy languished on mine until last month. I also did a bit of research to find out what Bail was up against in the Miles Franklin that year; besides Elliott Perlman’s popular Three Dollars, I wasn’t familiar with the rest of the short list.

I hesitate to use the word “nice” because it can be a pejorative term, but I mean it in the nicest possible way. Eucalyptus is a really nice read. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, if not essential – and you can certainly do a helluva lot worse than spend a couple of hours in the company of the Hollands, the men drawn into their circle and all those many, many eucalyptus trees dotted throughout the landscape …

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