I’m not much of a gardener.I’ll cut the grass and at a real push, when the whim takes me, I’ll trim the edges of the lawn but usually it’s a quick run around with the Flymo. My partner is the green fingered type. I like to walk through well maintained gardens in large stately homes, when they’re open to the public – both here and in the UK. Also, I’ll listen to gardening experts answering queries on the radio, or the likes of Alan Titchmarsh and his team swooping into to someone’s lost cause of a backyard and turning it into an idyllic paradise- that’s all grand. However, reading gardening books is a real no, no. So, when last months book group choice was Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, I was temped to run for the potting shed to sample some home brew.
Murray Bail is Australian. No one else could or would, want to write a book solely dedicated to the humble Eucalyptus tree. This is his fourth book of fiction after The Drovers Wife and Other Stories, Homesickness and Holden’s Performance. Eucalyptus tells the story of a man called Holland who buys a large farm in the outback after the previous owners die. After a while his young daughter Ellen joins him from Sydney, he goes about the vast property planting every type of eucalyptus tree there is, and after a number of years when his daughter is coming of age he sets a challenge. He will give Ellen’s hand to any man who can name all the Eucalypti on the farm, of which there are hundreds.
Many come from all over the country and abroad, but in the end one man arrives, a middle aged expert by the name of Mr. Cave. He and Holland set about the challenge under the watchful eye of Ellen, who is not that enamoured with the thought of having to marry the very knowledgeable but dour Mr. Cave. As the days and weeks go by and Mr Cave slowly but confidently whittles the list down, a mysterious young man appears to Ellen around the farm, entrancing her with tales of faraway places and eventually forcing her into a deep despair over the looming prospect of marrying Mr Cave, while her heart yearns for this elusive stranger.
Initially the constant referencing of various types of Eucalyptus tree and their background at the start of each chapter, of which there are thirty nine. Is a bit off putting, but vivid story telling and wonderful a style of writing employed by Bail whisks you very quickly to the parched dusty outback, bit like my garden in this extreme summer we’re having. If like me you’ve grown up with Australian soaps, like Flying Doctors and A Country Practice and seen films such as Australia and A Town Like Alice or Rabbit Proof Fence. Then you’ll know where we’re talking about.
Unlike the other recent Auzzie literary phenomenon The Slap, this doesn’t challenge your social conscience. This, on the other hand is a lovely story, which is basically a modern day Australian fairy-tale although being set in the forties and fifties, it isn’t that modern. By the time you near the end you are enveloped in the story and almost miss the twist.
Yes this book is all about Eucalyptus trees and apart from the four main characters, they’re the main anchor for this story. Before this book, the only thing I knew about them was that they’re the staple diet of the koala bear. Now I know that the word “Eucalyptus” comes from the Greek for “Well” and “Covered“, and that they come in all shapes and sizes and colours. The Cider Gum is blue, while Eucalyptus Salmonophloia (The Salmon Gum) is named because of its pink bark. There are lots of other pieces of incidental information about the trees, too numerous to list here.
So my advice is get an old wide-brimmed hat, attach some corks to it with string, raid the local wine store for some lovely Australian merlot or some “Tinnies” and settle down in your balmy back garden for a heart warming read.
(First published http://www.murphysview.blogspot.com July 2013)