Review: “A Town Like Alice” by Nevil Shute [1950]

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.

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33 comments

  1. This was one of those books whose title I was familiar with, but about which I actually knew nothing. Thank you for changing that – it sounds like a fantastic read. And Jean reminded you of Jane Eyre? I like her already.

    1. I think this is one of those books that everybody has heard of but has no idea what it is exactly about! I hadn’t much of an idea either. Jean is an excellent character and not a damsel in distress – thank goodness!

    1. Yes, I’m thinking of checking out the tv series but these sort of productions always disappoint me. I liked the new perspective of the outback cattle station and reading slang I rarely hear now (dinkie-di?) and seeing Quantas spelled as it should! 🙂

      1. Quantas spelt as it should? LOL It’s an acronym: Queensland And Northern Territory Airways (or somesuch) Service! The miniseries was good as I recollect – Bryan Brown was perfect.

        1. Ooops! I never knew that Qantas was an acronym! It always annoyed me that there wasn’t a ‘u’ in it like quantum. Well, they’ve come a long way, haven’t they, as an airline.

  2. I read every Nevil Shute novel there was when I was in my teens (and all my friends were reading Georgette Heyer whom I still haven’t read), but this one is probably the granddaddy of them all. It is such a wide-ranging book as you say. I did reread On the beach a couple of years ago and, while the end-of-the-world story was still interesting I found the language a little stilted. I think I’ve had my Shute phase – but, perhaps, I should make an exception for A town like Alice! Jean is a great character.

    1. I’ve always wanted to try Georgette Heyer but she seems like the Mills and Boons next to Jane Austen and the regency era/genre. I bought three other Shute novels, including On the Beach, while I was at Booktown (for $2 each! Hardback!) but I have no idea what they’re all about. I’m glad I did get them now.

      1. What are the other two? I remember liking In the wet (a bit more mysterious as I recollect) and Landfall (world war 2 story). No highway was good too – made into a film also.

        I’ve never really wanted to read Heyer for the reason you give, but this is the year because I’m attending a Jane Austen conference at which a Melbourne-based Heyer expert will be speaking. If I’m ever going to do it, now’s the time I think!

          1. Ah, I’ve read Chequer Board but can’t recollect a lot about it. No highway is probably the one to so next as in his oeuvre it probably is the best known after Town and Beach.

  3. That sounds really good! Glad you enjoyed Shute, I´m still reading On the Beach but am getting distracted by other books. I like it so far though 🙂

    1. I was a little put off by my edition’s front cover which screamed ‘classic war romance!’. It’s so much more than a simpering romance! I’m very impressed with Shute.

  4. I have had this novel for years on my shelf but have never read it because I wasn’t really sure what it was about. Now I am desperate to read it – it sounds fantastic!

    1. I don’t really know why I picked it up either. Must have been the delicious Vintage cover! The blurb was not very helpful either so I’m glad this review has helped you. 🙂 It was a very quick and superb read.

  5. I always thought I had a copy of this book, but when I picked it up to read it it turned out it was an abridged version. I did enjoy it however, so I’m still hoping to read the original someday.

    1. Ah, I despise those abridged versions when they don’t clearly let readers know. I kept getting that problem when trying to get a copy of The Wizard of Oz. It’ll be interesting to know how much it was abridged from the original.

      1. Basically, I think it was shortened: My version has around 200 pages or less and I think the official book is a lot longer? I bought it at a library sale when I was 16, never having heard of the book, it was only when I started reading the introduction that I found out it was abridged. Then again, you can’t say 50 cents is a waist, I’ll just have to look for the original sometime.

  6. I love Nevil Shute. I read A Town Like Alice last year and quite enjoyed it but not as much as other Shute novels. In high school (at the height of the nuclear missle Reagan 80s) I cried like a baby over On the Beach. I think my favorite my be Ordeal, or Pied Piper, or In the Wet…it is hard to choose. Back in November I reviewed Pied Piper with a run down of other Shute titles I have read. It might be helpful if you are trying to decide which Shute to read next. http://myporchblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/book-review-pied-piper-by-nevil-shute.html

    1. Ooh, thanks for the link. It is very helpful. I don’t know why they don’t put proper blurbs out on Shute but I guess he’s one of those writers that don’t need blurbs. I’ve heard some high praises for In the Wet too, but I don’t have that copy.

    1. Thanks Isabel. I’ve come to the conclusion that many others are like me – they’re familiar with the title but don’t know what it is about!

  7. I’ve never read this, but your review makes me want to. I was a little freaked out by On the Beach, which I read as a kid, and have steered clear of Nevil Shute ever since.

  8. I never heard of this book but it sounds very intriguing! Then I checked Nevil Shute on the Wiki. Apparently he lived and died in Melbourne and the book was made into an Australian tv series. Now that’s double intriguing! Thank you for the review!

    1. I’m surprised you’ve never heard of this! He’s regarded as one of Australia’s classic authors but I was surprised to learn that he only lived in Australia (didn’t know he lived in Melbourne) for only 10 years. I have to say though, I was never really that interested in reading this the lovely Vintage cover really grabbed me. None of the blurbs were particularly useful so I’m glad this helped.

  9. I love Nevil Shute and just re read A Town like Alice, but my favourite must be the Pied Piper – It is about an old man who goes to Europe to fish and the war breaks out and he is asked to take a child and her young nursemaid back to the uk but the war starts before they have gone far and they travel back the long way collecting children along the journey. Amazing story.

    Also love Georgette Heyer which are light historical love stories but they really make me chuckle. Re read them regularly whenever I need a lift in life

    Carol

  10. I have read this Novel plus most of M Shute’s Novels when i was with Air Force.way back in 1970s and thoroughly enjoyed it. Still some of the characters from the different books comes into my mind occasionally & urges me read those books again. I just finished reading the novel Trustee from the tool room & iam here. really nostalgic

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