Alison Huntley follows a fairy tale and watches it grow into a bizarre and beautiful portrait of small-town Australian life

by Murray Bail

Harvill, pounds 14.99

Nothing is one," states Holland, the sullenly gentle and possessive father of beautiful, motherless Ellen. As though to prove the point, Holland plants his farm, south of Sydney, with hundreds of species of a single genus; the Eucalypt. Then, able to conceive of no finer prize for such peculiar authority, he offers his daughter to any man who can name every single species on his plantation.

Ellen remains oddly disengaged from her fate. Isolated and lacking identity, she sees only an uncertainty that "apparently existed between her and all other men: not distance so much as a shelf at her elbow, with a high right-angled edge". Already one senses the beginning of fairy tale.

The vast dimensions of Murray Bail's hybrid novel, born surprisingly exquisite of a marriage between arboreal textbook and modern folk tale, spread far beyond either form into an absorbing critique of story-telling itself. Of those stale, outdoors fictions centred around existence in the harsh Australian climate, he is scathing because of the stereotypes they reinforce: "those dun-coloured hard-luck stories which have been told around fires and on the page".

Preferring to make sense of the relations between landscape and perceptions of beauty, Bail creates a metaphorical paradox alongside the arboreal one, which takes the form of interjectory chapters of pure moral fable. Made flesh in the shape of a handsome and mysterious story-teller, the fable leads Ellen out of her social and intellectual chastity.

Among her father's Eucalypts, this young man brings to life Ellen's curiosity about the wonderfully bizarre aspects of everyday life in small-town Australia. She learns of an old couple who communicate only through their dog, of a family whose treasure consists of a box of rare stamps kept buried beneath a tree, dug up now and then to be exchanged for cash, and of a vicar (the grandfather of the man soon to have named every Eucalypt) expelled from his African mission for instigating a flood by casting a statue of Christ into the river.

There is also a lovesick hunch-backed greengrocer who constructs a magnificent Archimbaldo-style portrait of his heart's-desire with "sliced apple and dates for nose; forehead of pawpaw; banana chin". "Why did the lovesick greengrocer have to be a hunchback?" Ellen wonders. "It was necessary for the story," comes the accepted reply, thus winning her for the side of imaginative thought. Bed-ridden with lethargy when the story-teller disappears, she can be roused by none of the lifeless tales told by her father or by her fiancee at her bedside.

It is an astonishing achievement that, with so many apparently unidentifiable roots settling themselves into the pages of this book, Bail never fails to trace each back to some significant form. A butcher's calendar ("Pleased to meet, meat to please") reappears many pages later in the novel, and one is relieved to discover that the mysterious young man is no mystery at all - simply a victim of oversight on the parts both of Ellen and the reader.

Beautiful in its persistent interconnectedness, Bail's third novel is something like a guide to the marvellous preoccupations of ordinary folk as they pick their way through life with a mixture of ingenuity and originality.

One might say that, through his insistence on the power of the story to open up life, he highlights the difference between the gardener - who shares his creativity - and the botanist - who merely identifies what someone else has made. But with his belief that "nothing is one", Bail himself might well conclude that one has no right to such a broad assumption.