Monday, February 28, 2011

A Town Like Alice

A Town Like Alice (Vintage International)
by Nevile Shute, Vintage, February 2010 (original publication 1950)

I do love this story and recommend it for those who like historical fiction.

I read this 1950 Nevil Shute novel for a couple of reasons – it got mentioned on the Book Lady’s Blog (a great book blog) as a favorite of the author Ellen Firsching Brown, it is on the BBC list of 100 best novels and lastly I had seen the Masterpiece Theater performance and absolutely loved it.

The story is about Jean Paget, a young English woman. It is narrated by her solicitor, Noel Strachan. There are essentially three parts to Jean’s story. In the first part we come to know her as a serious young woman working as a clerical in a shoe factory in London. She leads a fairly unexciting life when she is contacted by Mr Strachan and told that she has inherited a small fortune from an unknown uncle who has recently died. The monies have been placed in a trust that will be administered by the lawyer. She and the elderly lawyer begin to get to know one another and she shares with him her war experiences. (lots of spoilers ahead)

Jean was working in Malaya in 1941 when the Japanese overran the country and interred the British nationals who were working on the rubber plantations. Jean and thirty other women and children were force marched across the country for 18 months following their capture. The suffered terribly and more than half of them died during this march. Toward the end of their march they encounter two Australians who had been captured and put to work by the Japanese driving trucks through the country. Jean and the Aussie, Joe Harmon are attracted to each other and he on several occasions describes to her his much loved life on a cattle station in West Australia. Joe often steals food for the starving women and children and finally is caught. In front of the party he is crucified. The dispirited group is finally allowed to stop marching and remain in a small Malaysian village growing rice for the duration of the war. Jean through the difficulties of the march has evolved into a strong leader of the group but has been scarred by the experience and haunted by the death of Joe Harmon.

With her inheritance Jean is determined to return to the Malaysian village and dig a well for the women of the village in gratitude for what the villagers did for them during the war. During this experience Jean comes to find out that Joe did not die as she had thought. She sets off for Australia to find him. Unbeknownst to her Joe has recently found out she is not married as he had thought but is a single woman. This causes him to go to London to look for her.

Weeks later they reconnect in Australia, fall in love, marry and start a life on a Western Australia cattle station. Jean invests in the town starting a shoe factory and ice cream parlor. Descriptions of the lonely life in this outpost are good. In the final chapter Mr Strachan her lawyer visits and closes the narrative with Jean and Joe happily married raising a family in a growing town.

The sections of this story that deal with the war years are far and away the strongest part of the narrative. I love books with narrators, I think it gives me comfort that I won’t miss any important details but this narrator is pitch perfect in a matter of fact way giving details of the horrific war experience. This is the part of the story that is so memorable to me thirty years after having seen the Masterpiece Theater presentation. Also the sections that deal with Jean and Joe reconnecting are engaging and a fine love story.

The last part of this book set in Australia does not quite live up to the high drama of the war years. It does though give you an idea of how difficult and remote life in the Outback was and maybe still is. The novel is dated in only two ways. Everyone is constantly lighting and smoking cigarettes and the prejudice against the aboriginal peoples is explicit and somewhat shocking when read today. Despite those minor criticisms I do love this story and recommend it for those who like historical fiction.

I read a paperback book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia


NancyO said...

Hi. I linked here through Cym Lowell's site. I love A Town Like Alice. I think I've read it 3 times. Have you seen the movie? It's really good, too!

Thanks for the review.

Carole said...

I remember liking the movie years ago - but I can't really remember it. So I think I need to read the book - thanks for pointing me toward this one.