15 June 2011

Review 30: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

At school recently, I asked members of staff to be photographed reading their favourite books to make posters to promote reading around school. One of my colleagues, who is actually also a good friend, chose A Town Like Alice and was amazed, considering our very similar taste in books, to find out that I hadn't read it. So I borrowed it and was pleased to discover this unusual romance which is set across Malaysia, Australia and England.

A Town Like Alice is the story of Jean Paget, a young woman who is taken captive in Malaysia by the Japanese forces. The men in the group are sent to a labour camp and the women and children are forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia whilst the Japanese decide what to do with them. On the way they meet, and are helped by, an Australian man, Joe Harman who is horrifically punished for trying to get them some food. The book begins after she has returned, and the part of the story in Malaysia is related as she tells her lawyer what happened. She has a lawyer because at the start of the novel she finds out that she has come into a huge amount of money from a distant Scottish relative. The rest of the review below the jump gives away some plot points, some of which were made obvious by the blurb on my copy of the book, which was frustrating, so if you haven't read this and would like to don't read on.

If you do stop reading here then in summary this is a wonderful book with adventure, romance and history that is slightly tinged by occasional sexist and racist element which make you pause slightly and remind you that this book was written 60 years ago.

The first part of the novel as Jean relays to Noel Strachan, her lawyer, what happened to her in Malaysia. She relates what happens in a very matter of fact way, there is no melodrama or sentimentality in her description of what happened to them. This very factual telling of the story means that the brutality and cruelty that occurs is more surprising. Many of the women and children died on the journey suffering from malnutrition and illness as they were passed from village to village. Eventually Jean manages to persuade the Japanese soldier to let them stay at a small village and help work in the paddy fields. I thought more of the novel was going to be about this journey and therefore was surprised when it was wrapped up around a third of the way through the book, if that.

The second third of the novel covers Jeans return to Malaysia with her new found money to build a well for the village that the group of women lived in for three years during the war. Whilst there she discovers that Joe, who she believed had died for his attempts to help them, had actually survived. Meanwhile, Joe turns up at Strachan's office trying to find Jean and we follow their attempts to find each other again. When they do finally see each other again there is a rather uncomfortable section where they visit an island together and sleep together for the first time. Jean tells Joe that she would rather wait until they get married but if he has to, she is happy for him to sleep with her and then proceeds to find the bruises that are produced amusing. It is a dated exchange, to say the least, particularly as Jean is such a modern heroine in most respects. It's a shame that this scene dates the novel and adds an somewhat unpleasant element to the star-crossed lovers arc.

The final third of the novel is Jean and Joe setting up a life together in the Australian outback and Jean's attempts to transform the decripit town of Willstown into a modern, thriving town that will attract young people, like Alice Springs, the titular Australian town. Jean uses her inheritance to set up a variety of businesses. This mainly stems from the belief that Joe shouldn't have to try and find a job in a more appealing town for her sake which is another slightly uncomfortable concept, although Joe himself is not the person who feels this.

There are some unfortunate instances of dated, racist language as well as the Aboriginale workers on the land are referred to as 'boongs' who drift around jobs, and Jean opens a separate ice cream parlour for the black people. It's difficult to know how much of this comes from the time period and how much comes from Shute's perspective. Nonetheless, both the racism and sexism do sometimes create stumbling blocks in the flow of the story and take you out of the wonderful story as the language jars.

I found some of the reviews slightly confusing though. On Amazon, the book is lauded with the comment, 'Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language.' I found this a little bewildering as whilst I really enjoyed the novel and found the ending well written and moving, I was not even slightly tearful and I very easily cry during novels. I think different people see different things in this novel and I've a massive variety of reviews so I'd be interested to see what other people thought of it.

Jean is a brilliant heroine; resourceful, brave and adventurous. She single-handedly manages to create something out of nothing with Willstown. Joe is a lovely romantic character who manages for the most part not to stray into cliches. I found myself thoroughly absorbed in the story and Shute did not take it where I was expecting it to go. I've not really read anything at all similar, it is a truly unique novel which is well worth a read.

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