by Murray Bail
I loved the premise of this book! A recluse in the Australian outback has planted every kind of Eucalypt known to man on his property (over 500 different types of trees).
She lives in terror of him naming all the trees, because in the meantime, a much more age-appropriate suitor has been wooing her out beneath the sky…but he isn’t making any effort to name the trees, just to get to know…HER.
I Want to See the Trees
I don’t often say this, being a wordsmith, but this book would have been MUCH improved with some pen-and-ink drawings of the trees, or even photographs. I found myself skipping the boring descriptions of each tree and its genus and species. The botanical descriptions sometimes felt like an “information dump.”
I wasn’t expecting the magical realism, like when a peeping Tom who is spying on a Greek waitress as she undresses for bed gets turned into a telephone pole. That was cool.
I did get a bit impatient with the story though, because the heroine is SO damned passive. Yes, it was set in the 1800s, but I like feisty heroines. Ellen just sits around moaning and bewailing her fate without ever lifting a finger to save herself. In the end, to avoid the victorious Mr. Cave, she takes to her bed. She is rescued by her suitor, but through no effort of her own. That didn’t sit well with me.
What Are Women Like?
The other thing that bothered me about this book, which garnered such high praise from Michael Ondaatje, The New Yorker and The Washington Post, is that in certain bits, the narrator starts pontificating about women.
“Women do this…do that…feel this way…” Such sweeping generalizations are very dangerous. All it takes is for one woman to disagree and say, “Wait a minute, I don’t feel that way…that’s not true…” And your trust in and bond with the author is broken.
I want authors to have a deep understanding of human nature, but this narrator says that “Women” who go to the hairdresser and get made glamorous are never pleased with the result because they know that it’s all fake and put on, and that it isn’t really them, and underneath they are still ugly.
Excuse me, WHAT?!!!!!
I described this experience to my book group when I got back (Love you, girls!) and they said: It sounds like the author isn’t married and has no sisters and is just winging it. They also thought that the AUTHOR was from the 1800s from how I described his portrayal of women in the book…but actually, I believe he is contemporary. HMMM.
The Last Word
I enjoyed many parts of the book; others bored me; a few irritated me. I felt it ended a bit abruptly. However, I’m glad I read it. It definitely was different…he is a gifted storyteller. He just needs a writer’s group with at least one girl in it.