Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
Australian literature is full of legends – larger than life characters and extraordinary tales... one thing your archetypical Aussie is good at is "spinning a yarn". Tales full of bluster and heroics. Murray Bail's Eucalyptus is more like an Australian bush version of a fairytale.
Beautiful princess? Check. Enchanted forest? Check. Imprisonment in a castle? Check. A raft of hopeful suitors? An unwelcome betrothed? A hero come to the rescue? Check, check, and... yes, check! Eucalyptus has all the elements we've come to expect from a fairytale. The Enchanted forest is the extensive collection of eucalyptus trees that a man named Holland has planted throughout his property in rural New South Wales. Our beautiful princess is the freckled Ellen, Holland's daughter. Holland is a widower and is so protective of Ellen, who is all he has left of his wife, that he devises a scheme that he feels will prevent any young man from legitimately asking for Ellen's hand in marriage.
His idea is that the man who can correctly name every single eucalypt on his property shall marry his daughter. As Ellen is a famous beauty in these parts, this announcement causes quite a flurry of excitement. However, it is no mean feat to identify all these trees: Holland has assembled the most complete collection of eucalypts to be found and Ellen's suitors quickly fall by the wayside as the task proves more difficult than anyone expected.
And this is what I find to be the curious part of this story: Ellen herself. As you might imagine, she isn't terribly impressed by her father's scheme and becomes quite anxious any time a suitor appears to be progressing well. The thought of marrying a stranger, no matter his botanical knowledge, doesn't please her . What makes her such an unrealistic character is her acceptance of her father's omnipotence. She doesn't put up a fight, doesn't refuse his grand plan for her, doesn't simply leave. Her resistance ends up being of the most passive kind, but perhaps this fits in with the traditional image of a beautiful princess pining away in a tower. It's not clear when this novel is set – perhaps in the 50s or 60s – so maybe Ellen doesn't feel she has the freedom to make a life on her own and support herself.
Of course if she did, she wouldn't be following fairytale protocol and there would be nothing for the handsome prince to do. He arrives in the form of a mysterious young man who Ellen encounters amongst the trees on her father's property who beguiles her with a myriad of tales. Whether he is making them up or has collected them from real life, she doesn't know and neither do we. To me, this aspect of the novel felt like an interesting way of weaving together a collection of vignettes that aren't quite stories in themselves, just fascinating little glimpses into different characters that intrigue but don't go anywhere.
With beautiful prose and unusual tales, Eucalyptus is a charming fairytale and I like the idea of having an Aussie fairytale. However, the traditional pattern of a fairytale is inherently problematic when placed against contemporary values and whilst I enjoyed this book, I did find Ellen rather insipid. I just wanted her to stand up to her father and tell him he's barking mad and she's not going to be married off to the next tree fiend that happens to impress him. The setting didn't feel set far enough in the past for me to simply accept that she didn't have enough agency over her own life to make this come about.
Do fairytales really work in the 21st Century?