Thursday, September 24, 2009

Eucalyptus: when a tree is so much more than a tree

I bought Eucalyptus seven years ago at Word on the Street in Halifax. I bought it, to be perfectly honest, because it was only $5 and had a stunningly beautiful cover. It may not always pay to pick your books this way, but in the case of Eucalyptus it most certainly did.

The story is absolutely captivating. It is at once about trees, and the sort of mysterious elegance they have, and about the people who wander between them. And on top of that, Murray Bail manages to make this a novel about storytelling and the way words and language can carry you away into somewhere you have never been and didn’t even know you wanted to go.

The sort of primary story being told in Eucalyptus is that of Holland, a man who moved to the Outback of New South Wales, bought a large piece of property and spent the next twenty years covering it with every genus of eucalypt he could find. Holland lives on his property with his daughter Ellen, a “speckled beauty” who keeps rather to herself and seems to mostly live in her own imagination. As she gets older though, Holland decides its time she gets married, so he sets up a contest to find her a husband: The first man to correctly identify every species of eucalypt on Holland’s property will marry Ellen.

The contest goes on and on, and Ellen, despite an initial unhappiness about the way her future was being decided, eventually stops paying attention to the men who come to try their luck because to name all the trees is an almost impossible task. That is, at least, until the arrival of Mr. Cave, a man who appears totally unconcerned with the difficulty of the project and leisurely walks his way through over half the trees before either Ellen or Holland start to realize that Mr. Cave might actually win.

But as in any good fairy tale, there is another man, a stranger who Ellen meets one day between the trees. He seems uninterested in the contest, comes and goes as he pleases, and tells Ellen the most unusual and tangential stories.

Without giving away the end I will say that Bail’s skill with language makes this a wonderfully rereadable book. It’s so easy to get caught up in the tree lore Bail weaves around the different species of eucalypt. And the stories the stranger tells are so strange and wonderful that you can’t help but wonder what they mean and where he’s going with them.

The result of all these overlapping stories is that, while I can always remember the ultimate outcome of the book, I can never quite remember how Bail manages to get the story there. So each time I read Eucalyptus I get caught up in the story and the excitement of the ending all over again.

In a novel such as this, there is so much to talk about—the beauty of the imagery, the way the characters are crafted, the effortlessness of the reading—but it’s really the story that brings me back every time. Bail may use some techniques typical of fairy tales, but Eucalyptus is so much more than that. It is a book in which trees are not just trees and people do strange things for the people they love.


by Murray Bail

First published 1998 (cover image from the 1999 Vintage Canada edition)

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