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Eucalyptus (Panther) Paperback – 20 May 1999
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"One of the great and most surprising courtships in literature" (Michael Ondaatje)
"Bail tells a story which is encrusted with delicious detail, and writes in an affecting mood of rapt tenderness. The book will haunt its readers long after more perfectly-finished fictions have faded from their memories" (Andrew Motion Observer)
"Tall trees inspire tall tales. Eucalyptus makes most other novels seem weedy by comparison. It is a towering achievement" (Mark Sanderson Time Out)
"His sentences have a perpetually off-balance wit which gives you life's jumble, its mystery, its unexplained compactness. You take in the humour first, but then they deepen and deepen. Buy the book. You won't have read anything like it" (Francis Spufford Evening Standard)
"A most unusual, enchanting work...a novel of most beguiling originality" (Carmen Callil Daily Telegraph)
On a property in New South Wales, a man named Holland lives with his daughter Ellen. As years pass and Ellen grows into a beautiful young woman, her father announces his decision: she will marry the first man who can name all the species of the eucalypt, down to the last tree.See all Product description
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Set in a remote town in western New South Wales in the 1960s, we first meet Holland, a widower, when he arrives to take over a run-down homestead. The neighbours watch the outsider as he tends the land and speculate on his background. Gossip is increased when he brings his young daughter, Ellen, to live with him. Bail gradually reveals the family history and describes Holland’s growing obsession with eucalyptus. He begins planting them on his land and gradually the idea of an ‘outdoor museum of trees’ occurs to him.
As Ellen grows up into a beautiful woman she is controlled by her father, who even buys all her clothes and underclothes, and has little contact with people from the nearby town. As she approaches 20, Holland proposes that only a suitor that can identify all the eucalyptus species on his land will win her hand – essentially offering her a clone of her father. Many suitors try but all fail until another eucalyptus obsessive, Mr Cave, appears and gradually works through the plantation. It is only then that Ellen fully realises that this person may take her away.
As she ponders this she meets a mysterious figure who attracts her attention by telling stories that are initiated by the surrounding eucalyptus trees. She had been warned by her father to ‘beware of any man who deliberately tells you a story’ but, as in all good fairy tales, ignores advice. The stories are often cryptic, sometimes cut short, and involve families, but they attract Ellen’s attention and gradually a bond is formed. To further secure her interest the storyteller disappears whenever he pleases and refuses to reveal his identity. These contacts are, rather unconvincingly, kept from her father who is increasingly won over by Cave.
The eucalypti have very evocative names that feed into the stories [Ironbark, Bloodwood, Pumpkin Gum, River Peppermint, Yellow Jacket, Barber's Gum, Stringybark, Kakadu Woollybutt, Wallangarra White, Candlebark, Goblet Mallee, Manna Gum, Flooded Gum, Red River Gum, Silver Princess, Gooseberry Mallee, Gympie Messmate, Scribbly Gum, Southern Blue Gum, Ghost Gum, Spotted Gum, Bastard Tallowwood, Varnished Gum, Steedman’s Mallet, Fuchsia Gum]. Whilst her background has effectively turned Ellen off eucalypti [‘I'm not interested in any of them!'’], the stories that she hears transports her far from the homestead that increasingly seems to be a prison.
The effect of Cave’s ultimate success on Ellen is extreme, leading to her taking to her bed, her health failing. Alone in her room she recalls the stories that she had been told, all of which are much more interesting than those she is told by neighbours, her father and Cave.
The terse nature of the dialogue, the interweaving of information about trees and Australian culture, and the stranger’s circuitous stories mean that this is a book to read slowly. Whilst the short chapters facilitate this, Bail’s style can frustrate [‘It may not be exaggerated to say that the formidable instinct in men to measure, which is often mistaken for pessimism, is counterbalanced by the unfolding optimism of women, which is nothing less than life itself; their endless trump card.].
Some readers may consider it inappropriate that Bail reinforces traditional concepts of female characters in fairy tales since Ellen is little more than a chattel, having no choice about her suitors – the one reflecting scientific rationality, the other imagination and invention. There is, as is to be expected, a happy ending.
This is, of course, a fairy tale. But the characters are more than archetypes, the landscape lives and breathes, and the story is compelling. Bail's down-to-earth narrative voice provides the necessary omniscient narrative, combining dry wit with a sometimes irritating pomposity, but highlighted with frequent glimpses of unforced poetry: "smooth stones lay under water like pears suspended in syrup."
Although Bail avoids anthropomorphicism, the eucalypts nonetheless play a large part in this book's appeal. You will learn a lot about Australia's native tree but instead of a dry text book, there are vivid character sketches of the numerous varieties, not to mention the tangential starting points they provide for the stranger's often odd or melancholy love stories.
There is an obvious element of unreality to the story, but it is so well told that it is easy to suspend belief. The first half of the book - Holland's marriage, the building of a new life in the outback, with eucalypts - was captivating. If my interest began to wane a little as the suitor progressed through his naming of the trees, and Ellen listened to story upon story from the stranger, this was only a brief lapse on my part, and I soon found my heart was in my mouth as I carried on turning the pages to find out if Ellen would really be forced into marrying a man purely because he could name an extraordinary number of trees.
This is at its core a love story, but if the fairy tale structure is as old as time, the telling itself is as original as can be.
The descriptions of each eucalyptus throughout the book make you want to find out more about these trees - and indeed Australia itself. Bail's love story is almost as much with these trees as with Ellen and her suitors.
Despite the twist, I guessed the ending, and read the last twenty pages or so at breakneck speed at 3am, just to see if I was right. And happily I was - as all good fairytales should end.
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