When I asked my friend, the Master Gardener, the name of the tree with the colorful bark, she called it a gum tree, sometimes known as eucalyptus – evidently, pretty common in Australia and, to me, fascinatingly beautiful. Murray Bail’s novel, Eucalyptus, includes so much information about this tree that you could use it as a reference book. Or you could skip over all his Latin descriptions and just enjoy Bail’s modern fairy tale- if you can persevere through his forest of words.
Just as Sleeping Beauty could only be awakened by true love, just as Briar Rose’s prince had to have pure motivation to cut through the thorns – was that the same story? – Bail’s hero in Eucalyptus has to pass a test to get the fair Australian maiden, Ellen.
Ellen’s father, Holland, came into wealth by taking out insurance that his wife would have twins; after Ellen is born, her twin brother and her mother both die. Holland cashes in the policy, eventually buying land in New South Wales and begins a life with his young daughter. At first, Ellen becomes a partner in his quest to find every type of eucalypt and plant it on their property. As she grows older, she tires of her father’s obsession; when she becomes interested in men, her father creates a plan to find her a husband.
He devises a test that he thinks no one can pass. To win Ellen’s hand in marriage, the successful suitor will have to name each elusive name of the hundreds of varieties of eucalypt he has planted on their Australian land; only such a man will be worthy of his daughter.
Throughout the narrative, Bail provides instruction with botanical references, descriptions of leaf formation, color, plant size, etc. – but no pictures. After reading about the Yellow Bloodwood, the Black Peppermint, and many more in the eucalyptus family, I found a website - Australian Native Plants - just to see what they looked like.
Many suitors try and fail, but eventually, Mr. Cave arrives and appears to know as much about the eucalyptus as Holland, which does not necessarily endear him to Ellen…
“Really, what sort of man could go and name all the trees? … The sheer number of names shifting about in English and Latin would occupy vital space in a person, space that could be used for other, more natural things…”
As Mr. Cave methodically progresses through his naming of trees, charming Holland and ignoring Ellen, another man mysteriously appears under a tree one day to captivate Ellen with his stories. While Mr. Cave is wandering the acreage with Holland, Ellen is secretly meeting the mystery man every day to hear him tell her stories. The mysterious man seems to know all the tree names and connects each eucalyptus with a tragic love story laced with a little philosophy, romance, and morality. He has a story for every tree, and the trees cover the wide expanse of the land, so the stories seem neverending. After a few pages of “a thousand and one nights” of rambling, you’ll wonder where the original plot went.
Just as Mr. Cave is about to finish naming the trees and claim Ellen as his prize, Ellen is suddenly struck with a despairing illness; the mysterious man has disappeared. For days, she languishes in bed; only a story by the right person can save her.
Just in case you decide to wade through all the botany and the Scheherazade marathon, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. Remember, most fairy tales have a “live happily ever after” ending.
For some reason, Eucalyptus weaved its spell and entangled me in its prose, but not everyone will want to wallow in Bail’s poetic descriptions and philosophizing. I admit, I did skip most of the eucalyptus lecturing – and went for true love.