‘Eucalyptus’ by Murray Bail

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail won the Miles Franklin Prize in 1999 and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. I wish I hadn’t waited so long – it’s an extraordinarily beautiful story.

Eucalyptus is the story of a widower, Holland, who moves to a large property in rural New South Wales with his astoundingly beautiful daughter, Ellen. Holland has an obsession – eucalypt trees. He makes it his mission to plant every species (over five hundred, with some so rare that they are only found on a rocky ledge in the Blue Mountains) on his sprawling, riverfront property. In doing so, he creates an “outdoor museum of trees”.

As Ellen grows older, the legend of her beauty spreads and Holland decides that the man who can name every eucalypt on the property will win Ellen’s hand in marriage.

This may sound like a fanciful storyline and indeed it is. Eucalyptus is a fairy tale and contains all the elements you would expect in a fairy tale, recast in a rural Australian setting – there’s mythical beauty, a princess trapped in her castle, suitors from distant lands and an enchanted forest. Whether it’s the Australian setting or Bail’s cleverly created characters, the story comes across as wholly believable (which in itself is magical).

Each chapter is named after a species of eucalypt and includes a string of short, intricate and seemingly inconsequential stories which link to varying degrees to the name, characteristics or habitat of particular eucalypt species. The stories are told from the point of view of different characters – achieved most successfully through the character known only as ‘the stranger’. His stories begin with enticing opening lines such as “Off the coast of Victoria was a wife of a lighthouse keeper who became addicted to kite-flying.” How can you not keep reading when presented with that?!

Any book that truly ‘finishes’ on the very last page in a way that is so unexpected, so surprising and so intensely satisfying, wins me. I did not see where the story was heading until the last page and I closed the book smiling and amazed at the cleverness of the conclusion.

I’ll say no more about the story for fear of giving something away. I loved Bail’s use of eucalypts to set the scenes – perhaps because they reminded me of my few years at university when I dabbled in the odd forestry subject – there is something very calming in the methodical task of plant identification.

It’s worth noting that a movie version of Eucalyptus was slated in 2005, starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. The project was shelved and I’m glad – I can’t conceive of a movie set that would do Holland’s property justice (plus the Kidman/ Crowe combination would have been the worst Aussie cliché).

Eucalyptus needs a eucalyptus recipe but nothing that will make you think winter coughs and colds and eucalyptus drops! Instead I discovered this extraordinary dessert – Raspberries with Eucalyptus Meringue.

5/5 Read it simply for the fact that it is a story guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve read before. I promise.

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