Eucalyptus (1998) has won praise and prizes, including the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It has been described as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘highly original’ and ‘a pleasure’. This just goes to show that different books appeal to different people, as for all its strengths, this isn’t one that particularly appeals to me.
Holland (no first name), an unlikely settler on an outback NSW property, has become obsessed with eucalyptus trees, and has acquired and planted at least one of each of the over five hundred species and sub species on his land. When Ellen, his beautiful only child, grows up, he decides that she will be given in marriage to the man who can correctly name all of the trees on the property. Many try and fail. Eventually a suitor arrives who looks as if he might win the prize. But what if Ellen has given her heart elsewhere?
None of this is meant to be realistic – except for the very specific identification and naming of the eucalypts. The story seems to draw on fairy tales, or to use Bail’s own word, fables, which he says, are ‘stories that take root’, and ‘pass through many hands without wearing out or falling to pieces.’ They reproduce ‘ever-changing appearances of themselves; the geology of fable’. There is, obviously, the archetypal tale of the king who sets difficult tasks, the prize for success in which is his beautiful daughter and his kingdom. Scattered throughout are stories about people, often left incomplete, a device that seems to hark back to A Thousand and One Nights. The princess at one point pricks her finger on a needle and later has to be woken from lethargy by the rightful prince. So there is an intentional disjunction between botanical facts and narrative fantasy. This is echoed in the two strands of the story dealing with the suitor who has technical knowledge, and the lover who tells stories; one deals in classifying and naming, the other in stories about people – empirical knowledge versus imagination. Not that the trees themselves represent prosaic reality; far from it. There are lovely, lyrical descriptions of the trees and the landscape they create. Bail is also good at descriptions of people; after years on the land, Holland’s face had ‘become a reddish terrain of boulders, flood plains and spinifex’. I’m less convinced by Ellen’s ‘speckled’ loveliness – the idea of moles and beauty spots enhancing beauty doesn’t work for me. All this is told with a sort of whimsical lightness that befits the essence of the story, which is romance.
So what is there not to like? While some of Bail’s writing is beautiful, I find some of it annoying. He has a tendency to utter gnomic statements such as ‘The father is always waiting for the daughter’. Really? What does this even mean? Or ‘Art is imperfect, unlike nature which is casually ‘perfect’. To try to repeat or even convey by hand some corner of nature is forever doomed.’ I understand that there can be levels of meaning within the story; for example Holland’s planting of eucalypts not native to the area could be seen as imperfect ‘art’ rather than ‘nature’, but this sort of speculation, which some people may well find satisfying, I find distracting. And then there are the stories. Holland tells his daughter to ‘beware of any man who deliberately tells you a story’, though of course she doesn’t heed his warning. Stories are what win her. But what do the stories add up to? Some of them are about women trapped by circumstance, but I can’t hold enough of them in my head at once to discern a pattern in them – if indeed there is one. I assume Bail hasn’t just written whatever comes into his head, so I wish he’d clarify the meaning of the stories for me.
Then there is the whole question of fairy-tales. It isn’t reasonable of me to object to the fact that most fairy tales come from a time in the past that was patriarchal in the extreme; they are what they are. But I can’t help feeling very uneasy with the translation to modern times of the ‘woman as chattel’ to be given away by the figure of male authority. That the story doesn’t go quite to this script doesn’t alter the fact that Ellen is essentially passive. Bail is certainly not setting out to subvert the traditional fairy-tale; male competition for a female prize is at the heart of the story. This makes Ellen a weak character for me. I know that fairy-tale characters are stereotypes, but I find her essentially uninteresting, which doesn’t make for a satisfying read. Bail is said to wish ‘to challenge reader expectations and complacency’, so maybe I’m just not responding to that challenge. Other readers have obviously found this ‘experimental fiction’ much more enjoyable.
There isn’t much about Murray Bail’s life on the internet, though you can read an outline of his career here. (Nowhere does it say he was married for a time to the novelist Helen Garner. You have to go to her Wikipedia entry for that.) Here is a favourable review of the book from the New York Times. And here is rather nice piece of writing by him.