Once upon a time, there was a woman so beautiful that tales of her beauty spread throughout the world. When it came time for her to find a husband, her father put out the word: the first man to correctly name every eucalypt on his property would win his daughter’s hand in marriage.
It sounds like something out of Shakespeare. Or the Brothers Grimm. Or Homer. Even the daughter’s name is Ellen, just a tiny step away from that other famous and ill-fated beauty, Helen of Troy. But Eucalyptus by Murray Bail is a much more contemporary fairy tale, a strange romance set not in Troy or Bavaria or on Prospero’s island, but in the Australian bush.
Poor Ellen is powerless, as men from across the globe travel to her father’s land to name the eucalyptus trees. She mostly ignores them: after all they are wooing her father, not Ellen. But slowly she sinks further into despair. Then one day a stranger appears on the land, and he begins to tell stories. Stories and fragments of stories, mostly about women and families.
I read this book recently and I find it hard to describe except that the story was compelling while the language felt like water. Like submerging yourself in a cool river on a hot day. I read parts of it aloud to my baby daughter because she likes the sound of my voice as she drops off to sleep, and the words tasted a little bit like music in my mouth.
Eucalyptus is a wonderful read, steeped in Australian culture, and surprisingly refreshing (there’s that river again). I won’t spoil the ending for you, except to say that it was wholly… satisfying. It gave me an “I should have guessed” moment that sent me scuttling back through the pages for the clues I had missed. And it left me smiling. I didn’t expect that.