Blasts from the Past: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

The pleasures of reading fiction are many and varied but broadly speaking they tend to fall into two categories: sometimes it’s all about the storytelling, sometimes it’s about the writing. Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus manages to combine both beautifully. I remember being charmed by this modern day fairy tale, not wanting it to end.

With his wife dead, his daughter Ellen away at school and no apparent need to make a living, Holland perfects his eucalyptus collection until he has over five hundred trees on his isolated New South Wales estate. When Ellen joins him, she passes her days walking, listening to her father’s stories, occasionally yearning for city life. As she reaches marriageable age, Holland sets up a competition with Ellen’s apparent acquiescence – the first man who names all his eucalypts will marry her. So begins a long parade of suitors, their imagination captured by stories of Ellen’s beauty. Finally, one remains – Roy Cave, steeped in knowledge of eucalypts and little else. But Ellen has another suitor who appears on her daily walks, beguiling her with his storytelling. When it seems that Cave can’t fail, Ellen takes to her bed and it’s left to the young storyteller to revive her with one last tale.

Eucalyptus is a glorious celebration of storytelling. Holland tells stories to his daughter; Ellen is enthralled by a young storyteller; the narrator tells us stories about eucalypts; even the dull Cave has his story to tell, albeit brief and uneventful. Bail’s language is rich in fabulous imagery and metaphor: it’s only the occasional mention of motorcycles or hairdryers that reminds us that this tale is set in twentieth-century Australia. Stories within stories couched in gorgeous prose – I loved it.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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14 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail (1998)”

  1. I’m so pleased to hear of your enduring enthusiasm for this one as I picked up a copy in Hay-on-Wye last year (just 99p from the Oxfam shop). Now I need to find the excuse to read it. My potential flora theme for summer 2022’s reading would be just the ticket!

  2. I loved this book too, Susan. Some feminists take offence, and given what I know about Bail they possibly have an argument, but I did and still do find the book mesmerising. I’d still press it on people.

  3. Ohhh, I loved this one too. It was one I picked up second-hand, at a college booksale, some years prior, so a longtime shelf-sitter, when I read and just inhaled and adored it. Such a surprise!

  4. James O'Doherty

    I read this on my first & only trip to Australia. What a delight, and an interesting writer full-fledged ideas. His 2009 follow-up, The Pages, is also excellent.

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