A man, who has a daughter (Ellen) and an obsession with collecting and growing eucalypts on his New South Wales property, announces that a suitor who can identify every one of the near 500 species, will win the hand of his daughter. The girl, an unusual creature, skin speckled with brown and a habit of walking around her father’s vast property stark-naked, is disinterested in her father’s challenge.
Men come from miles; she dismisses them all, unaffected by their failure, unimpressed by their various shapes and sizes. It seems no man, aside from her father, could achieve such a feat, until Mr Cave, a eucalyptus expert from Adelaide, sets up residence in the farmhouse and proceeds to work his way through the paddocks of trees. He shows real potential, and Ellen is worried.
Another man, a mysterious drifter, appears on the property and bewitches her with stories. As Mr Cave toils through day after day of naming species, this nameless stranger occupies Ellen’s thoughts and entertains her with quiet tales of lost love, missed opportunities, failed romances; people from cities she has never seen. She is intrigued, and she is falling in love.
I won’t ruin the ending for anyone who cares to read, but this is a modern fairytale with improbable events and odd characters. The writing is lyrical, the story interspersed with stories inspired by eucalyptus species, the narrative etched with wistfulness.
I started off with great interest, impressed by Mr Bail’s writing style and delighted by the Australian setting and focus on eucalypts. As an aside, for a while I thought I might be an ecologist/botanist, and so I have a greater interest than the norm in native plant and animal species. Now that I’m a writer, I appreciate writers who capture our native landscape and highlight it.
My favourite scene in this book is one where the writer focuses attention on the River Red Gum, a tree I would happily be buried under (or have my ashes scattered under… whichever).
The most common eucalypt in the world is the Red Gum. Hundreds on Holland’s property alone followed the river. And yet – small example of the unexpected – for all its widespread distribution, it has not been found in Tasmania.
Over time the River Red Gum (E. camaldulensis) has become barnacled with legends. This is only to be expected. By sheer numbers there’s always a bulky Red Gum here or somewhere else in the wide world, muscling into our eye, as it were; and by following the course of rivers in our particular continent they don’t merely imprint their fuzzy shape but actually worm their way greenly into the mind, giving some hope against the collective crow-croaking dryness. And if that’s not enough the massive individual squatness of these trees, ancient, stained and warty, has a grandfatherly aspect; that is, a long life of incidents, seasons, stories.
Stories are the glue that binds this book together. Without the stories -- related only by their having been inspired by a particular eucalyptus species -- there would be no story.
This book won literary awards. Despite the quality writing, I can't quite see why. I appreciate its uniqueness, the depth of research, the well crafted writing, but I had hoped for more.
Rating ** (out of *****)...Continua