Probably not. In which case you would not win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Ellen Holland.
For Ellen's father has set potential suitors the task of identifying all the Eucalyptus trees on his New South Wales estate. Not surprisingly, most fall by the wayside but the rather dull (he would be, wouldn't he?) Mr Cave , seems set to succeed...
That's the fairy tale premiss of Murray Bail's lyrical evocation of Australia's iconic gum tree, of which there are apparently 700 variations.
The eucalypts may be seen as daily reminders of the sadnesses between fathers and daughters, the deadpan stoicism of nature (which of course isn’t stoicism at all), drought and melting asphalt in the cities. Each leaf hanging downwards suggests another hard-luck story or a dry line or joke to wave away the flies...
There are may hard-luck stories to be told, and many dry lines too, as we learn a little of the history of this tough environment, which is home to tough people :
The men walking about either had a loose smile, or faces like grains of wheat. And every other one had a fingertip missing, a rip in the ear, the broken nose, one eye in a flutter from the flick of the fencing wire.
Late one afternoon – in the 1940s – the last of the bachelor-brothers fell in the river. No one could remember a word he had said during his life. He was known for having the slowest walk in the district.
Not surprisingly, Holland the incomer from Sydney who takes over the estate, doesn't quite fit in:
People didn’t trust him. The double smile didn’t help. Only when he was seen to lose his temper over something trivial did people begin to trust him.
A few months later, his daughter arrives. Ellen has never known her mother, but knows her parents met through a "matrimonial advertisement" he had placed in a newspaper notice: “What’s wrong with that? It has a high curiosity value for both parties."
Before the birth Holland had taken out an insurance policy against his wife having twins. Ellen's brother died only a couple of days old, but the big cheque he received would pay for the estate.
To claim ownership of his new land Holland feels compelled to name every bird, rock and tree. And he plants an eucalyptus tree in front of the house.
The gum tree has a pale ragged beauty. A single specimen can dominate an entire Australian hill. It’s an egotistical tree. Standing apart it draws attention to itself and soaks up moisture and all signs of life, such as harmless weeds and grass, for a radius beyond its roots, at the same time giving precious little in the way of shade. It is trees which compose a landscape.
That first tree led to an obsession, and that obsession leads him to lay down the challenge that like his own advert for a wife, will define his daughter's life. The challenge of naming every one of the rare and obscure eucalypts will defeat many, but Cave is different.
Holland and Cave spend many days walking the estate but, as Cave is demonstrating the botanical prowess that seems destined to flower into an arranged marriage, Ellen becomes entranced by the storytelling of an enigmatic stranger. Some of his stories are tragic, some very funny, and many are both.
We learn that "in one of the countless culs-de-sac in Canberra lived a retired public servant and his wife. For the last seventeen years they had only spoken to each other through their dog." (We are not told whether the dog features in Kaleski’s classic 1914 study, which was called - this is true! - Australian Barkers and Biters).
We are told that clarity, lack of darkness might be called “eucalyptus qualities.” There is darkness in Eucalyptus, but Bail's writing glitters with extraordinary qualities, carrying both science and poetry.
I am hugely grateful to Kim at Reading Matters for the recommending Eucalyptus, a five star read and quite possibly the best novel I have read this year.