Eucalyptus: A Novel

Eucalyptus: A Novel

by Murray Bail


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Thursday, August 5


Winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

On a property in New South Wales, a widower named Holland lives with his daughter, Ellen. Over the years as she grows into a beautiful woman, Holland plants hundreds of different eucalyptus trees on his land, filling the landscape, making a virtual outdoor museum of trees. When Ellen is nineteen, Holland announces that she may only marry the man who can correctly name the species of each and every gum tree on his property. A strange contest begins, and Ellen is left unmoved by her suitors until she chances on a strange young man resting under the Coolibah tree whose stories will amaze and dazzle her. A modern fairy tale, and an unforgettable love story, that bristles with spiky truths and unexpected wisdom about art, feminine beauty, landscape, and language. Eucalyptus affirms the seductive power of storytelling itself.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312427313
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/21/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 346,644
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Murray Bail was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1941. His other work includes the novels Homesickness and Holden's Performance, the short-story collection Camouflage, Longhand: A Writer's Notebook and Notebooks 1970-2003. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

* 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.

Customer Reviews