Updated on October 30, 2015
40. ‘Eucalyptus’ by Murray Bail
Sometimes it’s nice to read something completely different, something that you would probably never have chosen for yourself. For me, Eucalyptus is one of those books. It came to me from my dad, a botanist, who decided to buy me the most plant-related novel he could find, because of a running joke we have that I think all plants are lame (not true but go with it – my family is strange). He told me it was a joke and I really didn’t have to read it, but I did and I quite enjoyed it!
An out-of-towner called Holland buys a remote estate in Australia and sets about planting it with all the different types of eucalypts he can find. His daughter, Ellen, arrives at the estate later and grows up, isolated, amongst the trees. Ellen’s beauty becomes known all across Australia and abroad, so her father, noticing the furore of attention surrounding the girl, lays down a challenge: only a man who can name every type of eucalypt on Holland’s property can marry his daughter. People come from far and wide to take up the challenge but they all fail, except one: a fairly boring older man called Cave. It looks like Ellen’s future is set, until a stranger turns up amongst the trees and starts telling her enchanting stories.
OK, so the premise ‘complete the challenge to win fair maiden’ is a bit outdated and Ellen spends a fair amount of time weeping about the fact that she can’t choose her future husband for herself. Bail does a decent job of wrapping up the idea in pretty descriptions about life and fate and Ellen’s wistful acceptance of the decision made by her father, whom she trusts – but that concept remains firmly at the heart of the story. For that reason, I couldn’t love the book – the central conceit is just too old-fashioned.
However, there was plenty to like about it. The writing style was flowing and lyrical, moving easily between plot descriptions and philosophical flights of fancy. Sometimes the poetic ideas felt like a bit of a stretch (like the notion that eucalypts serve to remind us of the sadnesses between fathers and daughters), but the language was quite beautiful and gave the whole story a pleasantly dreamy atmosphere. I also thought the narrative voice was very clever: it was quite detached, sometimes to the point of seeming like an observer-character itself, rather than just a method of story-telling. I could imagine some kind of omnipotent being floating over the whole book, watching and categorising the characters’ feelings like some alien or god creating a taxonomy of emotions. Obviously this links so closely to the subject matter of the story (Holland’s obsessive collecting of plants) that I couldn’t help but be impressed.
The eucalypts are, of course, at the very heart of the novel. The chapter titles are all Latin names for various eucalypts and much is made of the multifarious varieties of these plants and their uses throughout. The stories told by the stranger all connect to the properties of the individual eucalypts, and the trees interweave thoroughly with the characters’ lives. They influence their emotions, teach them things and provide a gorgeous backdrop to the story.
Ultimately this isn’t a book to read for the plot (or the ‘twist’ at the end, which was hardly a surprise), but it is a beautiful piece of writing and an impressive lesson in style.
“In this he followed the greatest painters and English landscape gardeners who struggled with the difficulty of reproducing the randomness of true harmony, demonstrated so casually in nature.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.