Murray Bail. Photo by Anthony Browell. Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus spins a people’s history and landscape through fairy tale. In a remote property in New South Wales, Australia, a widower promises his only daughter, a young woman of renowned beauty, to any suitor who can name every species of eucalyptus tree on his sprawling ranch. There are many suitors, and many more eucalyptus: E. desertorum, E. maidenii, E. signata, E. fruticosa, E. foecunda … . It’s an ancient tale: the beautiful maiden, the unsuitable suitors, the ultimate test. And the renegade hero, a young stranger who seduces his mistress with stories inspired by the names of the trees in her forest. We name things in order to know them, one might say to embrace them. A name suggests knowledge; one species weeps and another seems haunted, but these qualities are our own and therefore hold deeper secrets. It is in the act of storytelling, the imagining of the tale, that we pass on collective knowledge: what we remember and what we can’t quite remember. Bail’s hero seduces the maiden with stories, matter-of-fact enchantments, dotted with violent endings and erudite information. He lures her by narrating in the style of myth and, in charming her, charms us as well. His power lies in what he represents—what we can’t know but hope for, something more than what stretches before us—the very nature of storytelling, in this case made uncommonly beautiful by Murray Bail’s idiosyncratic vision.