"On a property in western New South Wales a man named Holland lives with his daughter Ellen. Over the years, as she grows into a beautiful young woman, he plants hundreds of different gum trees on his land. When Ellen is nineteen her father announces his decision: she will marry the man who can name all his species of eucalypt, down to the last tree.
"Suitors emerge for all corners, including the formidable, straight-backed Mr Cave, world expert on the varieties of eucalypt. And then walking among her father's trees, Ellen chances on a strange young man who in the days that follow tells her dozens of stories set in cities, deserts, faraway countries...
"Eucalyptus is Bail's best and most moving novel. It is both a modern fairy tale and an unpredictable love story played out against the spearing light and broken shadows of country Australia. Its intricate narrative is interwoven with ideas about art, feminine beauty, landscape and language. Haunting and mesmeric, Eucalyptus illuminates the nature of story-telling itself."
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.
From the Text Publishing hardback edition, 1998.
This novel won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the 1999 Miles Franklin Award.
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Last modified: April 29, 2002.