Eucalyptus is a 1998 novel by Australian novelist Murray Bail. The book won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award and the 1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
Eucalyptus tells the story of Ellen Holland, a young woman whose "speckled beauty" and unattainability become legend far beyond the rural western New South Wales town near the property where she grows up. Her protective father's obsession with collecting rare species of Eucalyptus trees leads him to propose a contest - the man who can correctly name all the species on his property shall win her hand in marriage.
The novel contrasts a detailed, scientific classifying of Eucalyptus trees, with the story of Ellen told from a parodied fairy tale perspective. This fits well with Bail’s status as a writer of fiction and non-fiction.
The novel begins with a discussion of Australian culture “the poetic virtues which have their origins in the bush of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and lets not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies.” But concludes that: “it really doesn’t matter.” This sets a major theme for the novel to explore. The novel could easily be interpreted as a renegotiation of Australian identity. Bail at once glorifies Australian tradition and attacks the notion of “a sun burnt country”.
Ellen’s story begins with “Once upon a time.” This fairy tale beginning is furthered by markedly one-dimensional characters. Ellen’s beauty is renowned across states and oceans, yet apart from this the reader is given little else to go by. Likewise Holland, Ellen's father, a man who likes to plant trees. Mr. Cave is a brilliant, albeit boring, older man. Likewise the unnamed lover is a storyteller. These flat characters contrast against the scientifically intricate details of the Eucalypt trees.
Each short story accelerates the narrative frame and is analyzed within the scientific eucalypt theme. This contrast is well implemented, maintaining flow and cohesion in spite of the fragmented medium.
The reader is encouraged to guess ahead at what the story may contain. “There once was a man on a property outside a one horse town, who couldn’t come to a decision about his daughter. He then made an unexpected decision. Incredible. For a while people talked of little else”. This encourages a responder to expect a feminist reading where his daughter is empowered.
Not so, instead, he designs a test in which a potential suitor must identify every eucalypt growing on his property. Ellen remains disenchanted with the whole scheme, as countless suitors try and fail at this test. This is until Mr. Cave, a botanical genius arrives. Cave appears to be the only man on earth capable of success. Tragically enough just as Cave nears his goal, Ellen finds her own love elsewhere.
A film version of Eucalyptus was once in the works and was highly publicised in the media, set to star Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. The film, whose budget was estimated sometimes at $15 million and sometimes at $25 million, was reportedly shut down by production company Fox Searchlight because of disputes between actor Russell Crowe and director Jocelyn Moorhouse.
Talks began in early 2004; the production was originally intended to star Geoffrey Rush, Bryce Dallas Howard and Russell Crowe, to be directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, written by her and Michelle Joyner and produced by Uberto Pasolini and Lynda House. Bryce Dallas Howard was reportedly dropped from the project because Russell Crowe reportedly didn't want to act with someone outside his home-country, and Kidman subsequently joined. In early February 2005, Fox Searchlight announced that the film had been postponed to allow time for further work on the script. It was reported that the director had left the project because of dispute with Russell Crowe. After rumours he would direct the project himself, he cited he would like either Driving Miss Daisy director Bruce Beresford or Last Orders creator Fred Schepisi to helm the project.
The project's current status is unknown, but it is thought to have been dropped entirely.
The Australian-British composer Sir Jonathan Mills is working on an operatic treatment of Eucalyptus.1999 Miles Franklin Award - winner
1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize - winner Best Book