A fable-like novel from prizewinning Australian writer Bail (Homesickness, etc., not reviewed)poses an age-old question: How do you win a woman's heart? After Holland brings his small motherless daughter to his newly purchased estate in New South Wales, the two find themselves wandering the property and grand house seemingly without much purpose. But as the years pass, and as Ellen grows into a great beauty, Holland plants eucalyptus trees—every variety he can get, hundreds upon hundreds, virtually filling the once barren landscape with a "museum of trees." Meanwhile, Ellen's radiance becomes the talk of the town, the county, and the country, with her sun-dappled loveliness and isolation likened to those of a princess in a tower. Then, when she's almost 20, Holland devises a trial for suitors who want to win his daughter's hand in marriage, a presumably impossible test that will keep her close to him: each suitor must name and identify every tree on the property. And, of course, many fall by the wayside . . . until a certain Mr. Cave shows up. An expert on eucalyptus trees, the serious-minded Cave seems a likely winner, trudging up and down the property with Holland, identifying the trees. Meanwhile, Ellen, who's come to hate the naming of trees, takes solace in the forest created for her, and there meets a mysterious young man. He tells Ellen stories, almost all of them centering on a father, a daughter, and the theme of misguided love. As Mr. Cave gets closer to identifying all the specimens, Ellen and the stranger's meetings become more erotic, the stories more urgent. Finally, just as Cave successfully concludes Holland's test, Ellen falls ill. It seems that only storytelling can remedy her despondency . . . . A wonderfully written, melodic novel: Bail takes a simple idea and lifts it above the trees and beyond the horizon.
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