Eucalyptus - Murray Bail
The Text Publishing Company, May 1998, hc, 264pp, $29.95
Reviewed by Peter McNamara

Murray Bail is one of Australia's leading writers of contemporary fiction - sometimes referred to as literature - and at the beginning of his latest novel he says this of the eucalypt tree:

their leaves allow see-through foliage which in turn produces a frail patterned sort of shade, if at all. Clarity, lack of darkness, these might be called 'eucalyptus qualities'.

Bail's novel is called Eucalyptus, and it has all of these qualities. There is a requirement to "see through" its foliage, to grasp the clarity hidden beneath the frail the pattern of his words.

The basic story is simple: Holland, a widower, lives with his only daughter, Ellen, on a rambling property in country NSW ("west of Sydney 4 hours in a Japanese car"). As his daughter has grown from small child to beautiful young woman, Holland has spent the time when he wasn't watching out for her ("beware of any man who deliberately tells a story" he warns her, advice she conscientiously ignores at a later stage) planting eucalypt trees across the length and breadth of his land. Over the years this arboreal pursuit becomes quite an obsession, to the point where Holland has managed to plant at least one of every variety of eucalypt (there are more than 500 in all) somewhere in his paddocks. He is as proud of his eucalypts as he is protective of his daughter and, when he declares that only the man who can name each and every one of his trees will win Ellen's hand in marriage, it seems, in the bizarre context of the novel, a rather appropriate bargain. Ellen displays an increasing ease with this bargain, especially as suitor after suitor falls far short of completing it, leaving the quiet solitude of her existence at no risk of disturbance. Then comes Mr Cave, a man more of her father's generation, and apparently his equal in knowledge of and enthusiasm for the eucalypt. Unsurprisingly, the two men form an amiable relationship. But, with the leisurely inevitability of Cave's progress (it will take weeks or more to name every tree), Ellen comes to realise that she doesn't actually want to marry him (if, indeed, she wants to marry anyone at all). Seeking relief from the two men, and her own anxieties, she wanders off to the far reaches of the property, where, among the outer trees, she meets a young man; a stranger who engages her with stories rich in life experience, each story in its own way a response to the name of the eucalypt they happen to be near. She never discovers his name, but goes on meeting with him and listening to his stories, each seeming to dismantle some personal barrier within herself and add to her feelings for the young man. But as they grow closer, so Cave grows closer to completing his task, and Holland closer to being forced to honour the bargain.

So, does Mr Cave succeed in naming all 500+ varieties of eucalypt? And, if so, does Ellen keep her side of the deal? And what of the young man? Where did he spring from? What is his purpose here, and what in the end does he lose or gain? Obviously this isn't the place to spill that stuff. All I can say is that I found the end "satisfying" and also that I enjoyed the book more for its manner than its resolution.

The setting for this book is unashamedly Australian, and the main story is full of wry observations about life in country NSW. The small stories that the stranger tells, however, are universally human, stories of bargains and obsessions, misdirected affections and hopeless loves, opportunities lost and unexpectedly renewed, and the possibilities inherent in relationship, be they between those familiar to us or with complete strangers. Eucalyptus is a book about the bargains we make, essentially within ourselves, the consequences of those bargains, the price we hope for, and the price we, more often than not, unexpectedly pay.

And perhaps Bail is right; perhaps this is the way we live our lives, willing to test the constraints placed upon us by those who reared us and those who surround us, but never able to completely break free, for in the end, those constraints are all we have.

Which brings me to a final question: in what way does Eucalyptus fit into the accepted "fantasy" genre? If at all? Well, I think it does fit. Murray Bail is a storyteller in the genuine sense, here piecing together an intriguing fable in a manner guaranteed to challenge his readers even as it delights them. It's an unconventional novel full of small conventionalities, a novel laced with realities both harsh and ironic, but set within an almost quasi-magical world, a small slice of the real Australia that couldn't possibly exist.

For those whose interest is fantasy, and who want to explore its fringes, Eucalyptus is one of those gems that sometimes can be found there. Seek it out; it's well worth the effort.

©1998 Peter McNamara.