Eucalyptusby Murray Bail
The gruff widower Holland has two possessions he cherishes above all others: his sprawling property of eucalyptus trees and his ravishingly beautiful daughter, Ellen. When Ellen turns nineteen Holland makes an announcement: she may marry only the man who can correctly name the species of each of the hundreds of gum trees on his property. Ellen is uninterested in the many suitors who arrive from around the world, until one afternoon she chances on a strange, handsome young man resting under a Coolibah tree. In the days that follow, he spins dozens of tales set in cities, deserts, and faraway countries. As the contest draws to a close, Ellen and the stranger's meetings become more erotic, the stories more urgent. Murray Bail's rich narrative is filled with unexpected wisdom about art, feminine beauty, landscape, and language. Eucalyptus is a shimmering love story that affirms the beguiling power of storytelling itself.
—New York Times Book Review
"Charming, amusing, seductive and — beguiling — A splendid novel of startling originality."
—The Toronto Star
"[Eucalyptus is] as languorous as the pools of sunlight beneath the eucalyptus...Murray Bail is the master of his web...spun entirely of language."
—The Globe and Mail
"There is such a delight in Eucalyptus, such a strange and sly and swerving humour.... You will never forget what is at the heart of this novel — one of the great and most surprising courtships in literature."
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* I *
WE COULD begin with desertorum, common name Hooked Mallee. Its leaf tapers into a slender hook, and is normally found in semi-arid parts of the interior.
But desertorum (to begin with) is only one of several hundred eucalypts; there is no precise number. And anyway the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there in a more or less straight line onto the national character, all those linings of the soul and the larynx, which have their origins in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let's not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies.
It is these circumstances which have been responsible for all those extremely dry (dun-coloured--can we say that?) hard-luck stories which have been told around fires and on the page. All that was once upon a time, interesting for a while, but largely irrelevant here.
Besides, there is something unattractive, unhealthy even, about Eucalyptus desertorum. It's more like a bush than a tree; has hardly a trunk at all: just several stems sprouting at ground level, stunted and itchy-looking.
We might as well turn to the rarely sighted Eucalyptus pulverulenta, which has an energetic name and curious heart-shaped leaves, and is found only on two narrow ledges of the Blue Mountains. What aboutdiversifolia or transcontinentalis? At least they imply breadth and richness of purpose. Same too with E. globulus, normally employed as a windbreak. A solitary specimen could be seen from Holland's front verandah at two o'clock, a filigree pin greyish-green stuck stylishly in a woman's felt hat, giving stability to the bleached and swaying vista.
Each and every eucalypt is interesting for its own reasons. Some eucalypts imply a distinctly feminine world (Yellow Jacket, Rose-of-the-West, Weeping Gum). E. maidenii has given photogenic shade to the Hollywood stars. Jarrah is the timber everyone professes to love. Eucalyptus camaldulensis? We call it River Red Gum. Too masculine, too overbearingly masculine; covered in grandfatherly warts and carbuncles, as well. As for the Ghost Gum (E. papuana), there are those who maintain with a lump in their throats it is the most beautiful tree on earth, which would explain why it's been done to death on our nation's calendars, postage stamps and tea towels. Holland had one marking the north-eastern corner, towards town, waving its white arms in the dark, a surveyor's peg gone mad.
We could go on forever holding up favourites or returning to botanical names which possess almost the right resonance or offer some sort of summary, if such a thing were possible, or which are hopelessly wide of the mark but catch the eye for their sheer linguistic strangeness--platypodos; whereas all that's needed, aside from a beginning itself, is a eucalypt independent of, yet one which... it doesn't really matter.
Once upon a time there was a man--what's wrong with that? Not the most original way to begin, but certainly tried and proven over time, which suggests something of value, some deep impulse beginning to be answered, a range of possibilities about to be set down.
There was once a man on a property outside a one-horse town, in New South Wales, who couldn't come to a decision about his daughter. He then made an unexpected decision. Incredible! For a while people talked and dreamed about little else until they realised it was entirely in keeping with him; they shouldn't have been surprised. To this day it's still talked about, its effects still felt in the town and surrounding districts.
His name was Holland. With his one and only daughter Holland lived on a property bordered along one side by a khaki river.
It was west of Sydney, over the ranges and into the sun--about four hours in a Japanese car.
All around, the earth had a geological camel-look: slowly rearing brown, calloused and blotched with shadows, which appeared to sway in the heat, and an overwhelming air of patience.
Some people say they remember the day he arrived.
It was stinking hot, a scorcher. He stepped off the train alone, not accompanied by a woman, not then. Without pausing in the town, not even for a glass of water, he went out to his newly acquired property, a deceased estate, and began going over it on foot.
With each step the landscape unfolded and named itself. The man's voice could be heard singing out-of-tune songs. It all belonged to him.
There were dams the colour of milky tea, corrugated sheds at the trapezoid tilt, yards of split timber, rust. And solitary fat eucalypts lorded it over hot paddocks, trunks glowing like aluminium at dusk.
A thin man and his three sons had been the original settlers. A local dirt road is named after them. In the beginning they slept in their clothes, a kelpie or wheat bags for warmth, no time for the complications of women--hairy men with pinched faces. They never married. They were secretive. In business they liked to keep their real intentions hidden. They lived in order to acquire, to add, to amass. At every opportunity they kept adding, a paddock here and there, in all directions, acres and acres, going into hock to do it, even poxy land around the other side of the hill, sloping and perpetually drenched in shadow and infected with the burr, until the original plot on stony ground had completely disappeared into a long undulating spread, the shape of a wishbone or a broken pelvis.
These four men had gone mad with ringbarking. Steel traps, fire, and all types of poisons and chains were also used. On the curvaceous back paddocks great gums slowly bleached and curled against the curve as trimmings of fingernails. Here and there bare straight trunks lay scattered and angled like a catastrophe of derailed carriages. By then the men had already turned their backs and moved onto the next rectangle to be cleared.
When at last it came to building a proper homestead they built it in pessimistic grey stone, ludicrously called bluestone, quarried in a foggy and distinctly dripping part of Victoria. At a later date one of the brothers was seen painting a wandering white line between the brick-courses, up and along, concentrating so hard his tongue protruded. As with their land, bits were always being tacked on--verandahs, outhouses. To commemorate dominance of a kind they added in 1923 a tower where the four of them could sit drinking at dusk and take pot-shots at anything that moved--kangaroos, emus, eagles. By the time the father died the property had become one of the district's largest and potentially the finest (all that river frontage); but the three remaining sons began fighting among themselves, and some of the paddocks were sold off.
Late one afternoon--in the 1940s--the last of the bachelor-brothers fell in the river. No one could remember a word he had said during his life. He was known for having the slowest walk in the district. He was the one responsible for the infuriating system of paddock gates and their clumsy phallic-fitting latchbolts. And it was he who built with his bare hands the suspension bridge across the river, partly as a rickety memorial to the faraway world war he had missed against all the odds, but more to allow the merinos with their ridiculous permed parted heads to cross without getting their feet wet when every seven years floodwaters turned the gentle bend below the house into a sodden anabranch. For a while it had been the talk of the district, its motif, until the next generation saw it as an embarrassment. Now it appears in glossy books produced in the distant city to illustrate the ingenious, utilitarian nature of folk art: four cables slung between two trees, floored with cypress, laced with fencing wire.
In the beginning Holland didn't look lake a countryman, not to the men. Without looking down at his perforated shoes they could tell at once he was from Sydney. It was not one thing; it was everything.
To those who crossed the street and introduced themselves he offered a soft hand, the proverbial fish itching to slip out under the slightest pressure. He'd smile slightly, then hold it like someone raising a window before committing himself. People didn't trust him. The double smile didn't help. Only when he was seen to lose his temper over something trivial did people begin to trust him. The men walking about either had a loose smile, or faces like grains of wheat. And every other one had a fingertip missing, a rip in the ear, the broken nose, one eye in a flutter from the flick of the fencing wire. As soon as talk moved to the solid ground of old machinery; or pet stories about humourless bank managers or the power of certain weeds, it was noticed that although Holland looked thoughtful he took no part.
Early on some children had surprised him with pegs in his mouth while he was hanging the washing, and the row of pegs dangling like camel teeth gave him a grinning illiterate look. Actually he was shrewd and interested in many things. The word was he didn't know which way a gate opened. His ideas on paddock rotation had them grinning and scratching their necks as well. It made them wonder how he'd ever managed to buy the place. As for the perpetually pissing bull which had every man and his dog steering clear of the square back-paddock he solved that problem by shooting it.
It would take years of random appearances in all weather, at arm's length and across the street, before he and his face settled into place.
He told the butcher's wife, `I expect to live here for seven years. Who knows after that?' Catching the pursing of her Presbyterian lips he added, `It's nice country you've got here.'
It was a very small town. As with any new arrival the women discussed him in clusters, turning to each other quite solemnly Vague suggestions of melancholy showed in the fold of their arms.
They decided there had to be a woman hidden away in a part of his life somewhere. It was the way he spoke, the assumptions settled in his face. And to see him always in his black coat without a hat walking along the street or at the Greek's having breakfast alone, where nobody in their right mind took a pew and ate, was enough to produce in these dreaming women elongated vistas of the dark-stone homestead, its many bare rooms, the absence of flowers, all those broad acres and stock untended--with this man, half lost in its empty dimensions. He appeared then as a figure demanding all kinds of attention, correction even.
Meet the Author
Murray Bail is the author of two other novels, Holden's Performance and Homesickness, which won Australia's National Book Award, and a collection of stories. He lives in Sydney, Australia.
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Eucalyptus is the third novel by prize-winning Australian author, Murray Bail. A man called Holland comes into money and buys a property in NSW, west of Sydney. The previous owners spent much time clearing paddocks (“On the curvaceous back paddocks great guns slowly bleached and curled against the curve as trimmings of fingernails. Here and there bare straight trunks lay scattered and angled like a catastrophe of derailed carriages.”), but Holland soon changed that. His young daughter, Ellen, came to live with him. “The news quickly jumped the long distances out of town, and from there spread in different directions, entering the houses Holland had sat and eaten in, the way fire leaps over fences roads, bare paddocks and rivers, depositing smaller, always slightly different, versions of itself.” Ellen grew to be a beauty and Holland made a decision about her future that spread across continents and oceans. This novel is filled with gorgeous prose (“An unpainted shearing shed floating on its shadow in a paddock, moored to the homestead by the slack line of a fence.”), fascinating anecdotes, stories, tales, and legends, and many facts about eucalypts. There are parallels between the snippets of stories and the plot of the novel, and there is a marvellous twist at the end. Readers may find the writing reminiscent of Kate Grenville’s. This luminous novel is deservedly the winner of the 1998 ALS Gold Medal, the 1999 Miles Franklin Award and the 1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
Murray Bail's unlikely approach to a story of land, character and romance requires initial patience from the reader, but it's immediately rewarded by his careful, astonishing choice of details to weave a complex story of father and daughter, men's coping mechanisms when life takes unexpected turns, and, finally, at its center and leading to a fabulous crecendo of a sweet finale, the truth about love. Do not let the perhaps unfamiliar setting (Australia) and modus operandus (an obsession with the planting of eucalypt trees) deter you. Both become marvelous evocations of the human spirit, the qualities of devotion and the possibilities of hope.