A Town Like Alice is a tale of an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life in the face of various hardships. Jean Paget, a British woman working as a typist at a shoe and handbag manufacturer is twenty-seven years old when she inherits a nice little fortune from a long forgotten great-uncle. In his will, and due to his low regard for a woman’s ability to look after her own finances, the great-uncle stipulated that Jean may not have full access to her fortune until she is thirty-five years old and his lawyer, Noel Strachan, is to act as a trustee. Ironically, Jean is not a typical flighty woman as Strachan discovers when she tells him her experience of WWII.
Before the outbreak of war, Jean worked as a typist for a British company in Kuala Lumpur and decides to stay during the war. When the Japanese suddenly invades Malaya (Malaysia) Jean is taken prisoner along with thirty other white women while their husbands are herded off to Singapore or a prison camp. When the Japanese realise that the women, which includes children and a baby, cannot stay where they are, they are shepherded to and from different towns, made to walk in the the unforgiving conditions with no end in sight.
“People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had,” she said quietly, staring into the embers. “They don’t know what it was like, not being in a camp.” – p. 56
As it becomes clear to the women that the Japanese had no camp or plans for the women except to march them to death, the women, with Jean as the de facto leader, struggles to survive. Jean, quick to adapt and already familiar with the Malay ways and fluent in the language, quickly sheds her ‘white woman’ persona and dresses and acts as a native to physically survive, dressing in sarongs and walking in bare feet. The remaining women also soon follow suit. Along one of these marches, they come across two Australian men, who are also prisoners. Both parties are surprised to see each other, particularly the men when they see how the women have changed.
“Which of you speak English?”
Jean said, laughing, “We’re all English.”
He stared at her, noting the black hair plaited in a pigtail, the brown arms and feet, the sarong, the brown baby on her hip. There was a line of white skin showing on her chest at the V of her tattered blouse. – p. 67
Angry at the treatment of the women, the men try to help them. Jean instantly bonds with one of the men, Joe Harman, who tells her about his life as a stockman in Alice Springs and who nicknames her Mrs. Boong for her appearance. When Joe steals some prized chickens from a Japanese general, who is later convicted and hung for war crimes, he brutally punished. He is crucified, with his hands nailed to a tree, and whipped. The women are moved on and believe he is dead. They later find refuge with a kind tribesman and is given permission to stay with the small village and accepts Jean’s idea of working in the rice fields. They would stay there for the next three years until the end of war.
The second part of the novel follows Jean as she attempts to find a life for herself after she is repatriated. When she inherits the money, she returns to the village in Malaya that had sheltered the women and builds them a well so the women would no longer have to carry heavy barrels of water on a long trek. It is while she is talking to the well diggers that she finds out that Joe Harman did not die and is still alive and so she sets off to Australia and tracks him down. While she waits for Joe in Willstown, a run down, small town in the outback, Jean begins to think of some business plans in order to help the town – to find jobs for girls, who are leaving in droves to work in the city, which will attract men and which will increase the economy. Fate plays with the couple for a little while but when Jean and Joe are finally reunited, it is sweet:
He had been looking for a stranger, but it was unbelievable to him that this smart, pretty girl in a light summer frock was the tragic, ragged figure that he had last seen on the road in Malaya, sunburnt, dirty, bullied by the Japanese soldiers, with blood upon her face where they had hit her, with blood upon her feet. Then he saw a characteristic turn of her head and memories can flooding back to him; it was Mrs. Boong again, the Mrs. Boong he had remembered all those years. – p. 183
Once they are reunited, they don’t get their happily ever after immediately but they have to wait while Jean tries her hand at opening up some businesses to give her something to do, if she was going to live in the desolate town with Joe, and to help transform Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, which was then a booming place in the outback, with her inheritance.
Alice was a terrific read, somewhat to my surprise, and almost reads like two different stories. I had expected the typical war romance sort of book but this was something very different. Jean is a terrific character and heroine and it was more often than not that I kept thinking that she was rather similar to one Jane Eyre – plain, alone and who make their own way into the world. What I loved was the display of understanding and respect from Jean, and Shute as a writer, of cultural differences and customs. It was largely due to Jean’s respect to customs to the Japanese soldiers and Malay tribespeople that allowed the women to survive. I also loved how when Jean finally married Joe, despite all the time they had lost and what it took for them to find each other again, it was on her own terms.