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Eucalyptus: A Novel Paperback – September 2, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

"The idea that Holland's daughter was like the princess locked in the tower of a damp castle was of course false. After all, she was living on a property in western New South Wales."

Once upon a time, on a property in western New South Wales, a man named Holland plants hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus trees, then decrees that only the suitor who can name each and every one of them will be worthy to marry his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Men try and fail: there is the gentle schoolteacher who "had correctly named eighty-seven eucalypts and was doing it well when he went blank at the fatly handsome Jarrah up against the fence behind the house"; and the New Zealander who "came up against, and was defeated by, one of the many Stringybarks..." Old men, young men, commercial travelers, sheep-shearers--even a "smiling Chinaman ... all the way from Darwin." Not one is successful. Then, one day, along comes Mr. Roy Cave, a man renowned in the eucalyptus world, someone who "employed with lip-smacking relish the terms 'petiole,' 'inflorescences,' 'falacte' and 'lanceolate,' and he was also comfortable with 'sessile', 'fusiform' and 'conculorous.'"

Even in so wonderfully fractured a fairy tale as Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, it's obvious that Roy Cave is hardly the stuff romantic dreams are made of. Indeed, despite her father's warning to "beware of any man who deliberately tells a story," Ellen's Prince Charming turns out to be a mysterious young stranger who finds her wandering among her father's trees and spins her tale after tale, each one tied to a different kind of eucalypt. As the weeks go by, Mr. Cave continues to successfully identify every tree on the property, thus drawing ever closer to his prize. Meanwhile, Ellen's other suitor captures first her imagination and then her heart with stories of apprentice hairdressers who fall in love with plain-Jane heiresses; solicitors' daughters involved with married men; and lonely canary breeders who almost find happiness with spinster piano teachers. What all of these off-kilter stories have in common is a theme of missed opportunities, and lovers who realize too late that they were made for each other. Will Ellen, too, end up like one of these the sad-hearted heroines, or will her would-be lover find a way to thwart Mr. Cave's relentless victory march through the Eucalypts to claim her hand?

There is so much to love about Bail's novel that it's difficult to identify exactly which of its qualities make it such a complete delight. Is it Ellen's "speckled beauty ... so covered in small brown-black moles she attracted men, every sort of man"? Is it the detailed descriptions of the landscape? The way Bail uses them to comment on human nature, on the nature of storytelling and of language itself ("a paragraph is not so different from a paddock--similar shape, similar function")? Or is it the wacky charm of the Scheharezade-like suitor's urban tales? ("Still in the vicinity of low-height eucalypts he went on to mention, in a thoughtful voice, how in an outer suburb of Hobart an actuary with a well-known insurance company needed a stepladder to woo a widow who passed by his house every day.") Whatever the source of Bail's peculiar magic, Eucalyptus casts a spell that will carry readers from first page to last and leave them wishing for a thousand and one more stories just like it. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Bail is a sort of Australian magic realist, and if that sounds like a contradiction in terms, it is a fair summary of the rather disconcerting nature of the novel in question. The eucalyptus is Australia's emblematic tree, existing in hundreds of varieties, some extremely rare, and it is Bail's fancy that a man called Holland, living on a remote estate in New South Wales, planted on his land a collection of all such trees known to man. Having performed this odd, obsessive act, he then set, for his beautiful and only daughter Ellen, one of those traps essential to fairy tales: only a man who could correctly name each tree in his vast collection could have her hand in marriage. The problem was that Ellen didn't much care for the man who looked as if he was going to win; meanwhile another man came wandering through the trees and started spinning her wondrous tales. Bail's aim in this extremely odd book is elusive. Each of the many short chapters has a eucalypt heading, and the book is full of quaint touches of lore and fey observations about nature, landscape and art, not to mention a number of short, sometimes tantalizing tales. But the net effect, for all of some pretty writing and some gauzy atmospherics, is literary in the worst sense: coy, pretentious and with more than a touch of self-satisfaction.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Harvest Book
  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Harvest Books (September 2, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156007819
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156007818
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,095,106 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Michael Lima VINE VOICE on December 11, 2004
Format: Paperback
On the surface, Eucalyptus seems to be a fairy tale about a confined "princess" who can only be freed by a "prince" that names all the trees on her property. If one stops at that level, they will probably dwell on the frequent descriptions of eucalyptus that tend to break the story's narrative flow and the characters that seem a little too sparsely defined. Yet, beyond that basic reading of the text, there is a surprising depth to this book. To put it simply, Eucalyptus is a very interesting and challenging allegory about appreciating individuality.

Bail establishes his allegory by showing how his main characters have been primarily defined through speculation and assumption. For example, he depicts how Holland is subjected to conjecture regarding both his relationships and his past. Additionally, Bail describes some assumptions that were present when Holland and his wife first met. Given the prominent role that supposition played in shaping his life, Holland decides that the only man who can have his daughter is one who proves he can see past stereotype in order to appreciate a person's individuality. Holland attempts to achieve this objective by having his naming contest act as a surrogate for determining if a person can recognize uniqueness. However, Ellen goes beyond her father's intentions when she falls in love with a man who recognizes the eucalyptus' individuality by relating a story that reflects each tree's character. This man doesn't even have a name, thereby reinforcing Ellen's ability to see beyond a person's "title" to that which truly defines them as an individual.

By having his heroine fall in love with a person who recognizes each tree's "story" and not just their name, Bail makes the point that individuality is not just a person's title.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
On many levels this story fascinated me. As a budding writer I was envious of the amazing story which unfolded as I read. As a gardener and naturalist I was fascinated by the details of Australia's trademark trees and the way they were woven into the story to explain life and people's relationships with one another. I admired the "simplicity" of the writing style and the brevity of words. However, one thing puzzled me. I couldn't really get into the heads of the characters and feel what they were feeling. I only experienced their feelings through a kind of misty gauze. Something - a vital link - was missing between reader and characters to complete our understanding, to make our experience of this wonderful story complete. To me, the characters did not fully come to life. However, I have no regrets having read the story. I'm glad I did and have recommended it to others. I am honoured to somehow share the same landscape which had inspired Murray Bail, because like the obsessed characters of this book I too love the many forms the eucalyptus takes across this huge island. And I love his writing style. In a funny way, the flatness of the characters did not spoil my reading of the story, but gave me something to ponder when my reading was complete. What really were their feelings like? How would I have felt if I had been one of them? I can only imagine....and the story will continue to haunt me for years to come. Thanks Murray!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By "abidjanhogan2" on November 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
I first read this book several years ago after my husband gave it to me. At first, I wasn't sure I liked it, but I continued to read it and ended up loving it. Yes, the story uses eucalyptus trees as a tool to wrap the story around, and no, I'm not really interested in trees, but that's not the point. Mr Bail tells a beautiful tale of a father and daughter and their relationship. Of course, this story isn't 'believable' because few of us, if any, have heard lately of a real father requiring a man to name all the trees on his property before being allowed to marry his daughter. How silly! And yet what a wonderful outline for a fairy tale. Fairy tales usually are 'unbelievable'. Who really has 'ugly step-sisters' or ever saw a frog turn into a prince after kissing the princess, or knew a girl who fell in love with a hideous beast? This is a story! The father is oblivious to his daughter's desires and doesn't even know who she is at all. Yet she is precious to him and he requires what may be an impossible task of the man who will 'take' her from him. I think that's a noble, if outdated, emotion in a father. She meets the man of her dreams, almost dies because she will be forced to marry a man she could never love, and is brought back to life by her lover. She falls under his spell because of the odd, enchanting stories he tells her. Of course the stories have no endings, but they are tales that spark her interest and imagination. I found those little pieces of stories fascinating. All women should be so fortunate that they can be made so happy with simple tales told by the man they love. So, I recommended this book to my latest book group, not sure if I or they would find it as wonderful as I remembered it. I did, but we have not yet gotten together to discuss this book. I expect some people will hate it and others, I hope, will see the beauty I found in it.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Hailed as a masterpiece of original fictional writing by literary critics worldwide, I began reading Murray Bail's "Eucalyptus" - 1999 winner of the Miles Franklin Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize - with high expectations but regret to say that it was a major let down for me. The story of a father offering the hand of his daughter in marriage to the man able to correctly name all the eucalyptus trees in his orchard, has the makings of a fascinating premise for a fable. Bail's intimate knowledge of the Australian outbacks and well researched command of his subject is certainly impressive but to the non-native reader seems only overindulgent. Compounding the difficulty for me was the obscurity of his language and his vision. His sentences don't flow. Neither does his thought process, which makes reading the novel a jerky and uneven experience. His characters (Ellen and her father, Holland) are curiously underwritten. We don't understand what goes on in their minds and cannot empathise or like them. The fable remains ultimately an enigma. Even the wooing of Ellen by the unnamed lover with a stream of fantastic but unconnected stories as they encircle and cavort with each other from tree to tree became hard work and tedious for me. A fellow online reviewer helpfully explained that these stories all hinted at unfulfilled love but I can't say they made that connection when they tumbled into my consciousness. I realise the reviews of "Eucalyptus" from both critics and public alike have been wildly ecstatic. I only wish I felt the same but I don't. I found it a less than pleasurable read - disappointing and obscure. Sorry.
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