A Town Like Alice

I've been ill, and always find that when I'm ill I want to re-visit books that I've read before. Some are old favourites - like Nevil Shute's A town like Alice which have sat on the shelf for far too long.

Nevil Shute was a hugely popular author from the late 1940's through to the 1960's. He's hard to classify, many of his novels had elements of romance or adventure, but could not be categorised purely as romance or adventure novels. Many of his novels became films - most notably A Town Like Alice, The Pied Piper, No Highway (filmed as No Highway in the Sky, and starring James Stewart), and the post-apocalyptic On the beach. He's now sadly largely forgotten, although some of his best books, including Alice are being re-published.

A town like Alice is a striking romance/adventure story with a great heroine, Jean Paget. The novel is almost 2 separate stories in one, the first half of the book is set in wartime Malaya, while the second part deals with the building of a small town in Australia. What unites the two apparently disparate halves is the central love-story of Jean Paget, and her Australian soldier hero, Joe Harman.

The Malayan section is one of the most moving pieces of writing you could ever read. It was based on true events as told to the author by a friend. I think this accounts for the almost journalistic telling of this section, and there is a real immediacy and truth to it. A party of women and children caught up in the Japanese invasion of Malaya during World War II are marched to an internment camp. The camp doesn't exist, and so the women are route marched throughout Malaya, a march that quickly turns into a death march. En route they bump into 2 Australian soldiers, who are ferrying goods around Malaya by truck, the Aussies help the women by stealing items from the Japanese to give to the women and children. This turns to tragedy when one of the Australians, Joe Harman, who before the war was a ringer on an Australian cattle station, is caught, crucified and beaten to death.

Jean, already in love with Joe, never really gets over his death. When she unexpectedly inherits a large sum of money following the war, she returns to Malaya to build a well for the women of the village, where she had spent much of the war. Here, she hears some unexpected news which leads her to Queensland, Australia, and the re-building of a town.

The Queensland section doesn't have the power of the Malayan writing, but having said that, it is fascinating, and really made me think about what a new country Australia is, and how life has changed there in just 50 years. It is a true historic novel, in that it's a real time capsule of a period, and a place, that now will be so different. Like Gone with the wind, there are some attitudes of the period that are uncomfortable, I certainly found this so in the attitudes towards Aboriginals, and the sexual mores of the time can be unintentionally comical to modern tastes. Having said that it's a very good book, and the touching use of an elderly narrator who's half in love with Jean himself adds a deeper level to the narrative. If you haven't read any Nevil Shute yet, do so, Alice is a great place to start.


Popular Posts