Eucalyptus, by Murray Bail, was one of the first books I encountered as an “adult writer.” By adult writer, I mean a 17- or 18-year-old, newly arrived at a fancy-dancy liberal arts school to pursue writing. It struck me, like a bell in a tower, back then, and ever since I’ve taken many an opportunity to thrust it on other readers—some of whom returned the copy to me with lukewarm response. As it always goes with the books one loves, the lukewarmness is hard to understand. So, having recovered the book somewhat recently after it took a few year sojourn away from me on a different friend’s shelf, I decided to revisit Eucalyptus through thirteen-year-older eyes and see if I was unfairly preaching the novel’s merits through the haze of years and very fond memories of the class in which I read it.But no, I was right. The novel still rang bell-like through my heart and mind. Foremost, it is because it is a love story. One maybe learns more and ultimately even is more moved by a non-love story (broken hearts, broken relationships, murder, mayhem, etc.), but when we’re talking simple pleasure, is there any better than reading a love story? Eucalyptus spins the same kind of bittersweet aching mood as did The Time Traveler's Wife. Second, the novel explores every acre of its rural outback place, showing reader and prospective writer how intimately it is possible to know a place, how valuable and worthy of attention down to the most minute detail that place is. Third, there is Murray Bail’s embrace of learning. Because no matter how Australian he is, no matter how long in the outback, no matter how much he likes trees, I simply do not believe that the breadth of knowledge he presents in the book was entirely intuitive. The book feels like exuberant proof that one can teach oneself to become an expert. There’s the experimental format, using trees and tree facts to brace the narrative, using the story-within-a-story loom to further weave the reader so thickly in. There’s the simplicity—this is just a courtship, just a love story, it’s not going to change the world or shake up your worldview necessarily. There’s the nod to Sherazade—the need to spin a web of words around another, as if life depended on it. I sort of love those last two points because they acknowledge that not every story needs or wants to be a game changer.
What the years have afforded me, though, is the objective distance to see, finally, how the novel might not affect everyone in the same way. Some might say it begins strangely or proceeds oddly. That the opening few chapters distance reader from the story in that they meditate on trees, nature, how to begin a story. That, even, those first few chapters are like the knotted fringe at the edge of a shawl or blanket when the reader longs from the start to be thickly knitted into story. That, for readers weaned on action movies and the quick pacing of J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, etc., man, this has got to be one of the slowest paced books ever.
Sometimes a reader can read and wonder who this disembodied narrator is and why they know what they know; sometimes the experimental format will fray faster at the edges; sometimes a novel will have nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorism or war or the Middle East or modernity or technology or the distances between us. Sometimes—wonderful, wonderful times—nothing matters as much as the storytelling.