I wonder, have I found a new author to add to my favourites list? A couple of weeks ago I blogged about joining a book club (A New Book Group Frontier) at my new job and although a little worried that I might be over-subscribing myself, was excited about the choice of the month – Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice.
First published in 1950, A Town Like Alice follows the path of protagonist Jean Paget. Taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, Jean is among a party of European women who are marched back wards and forwards over hundreds of miles in Malaya, because no camp will take them and nobody seems to know what else to do with them. I don’t want to give away too many details of the story, if you do want to know more about what happens you can find out on Wikipedia here. But be warned it’s a synopsis so there are spoilers. The novel follows Jean from Japanese occupied Malaya in 1930, home to London and all the way out to Australia and we see her grow from a smart and strong young woman to quite a philanthropist as she settles in a backwater of Queensland and strives to develop little Willstown into a town like Alice Springs.
A Town Like Alice is a real ‘story’. It’s sort of an adventure part morality tale about personal strength, survival and a woman’s desire to create something beautiful out of the bare means in a time when women had very little influence. I apologies if that description makes it sound incredibly naff, but it’s really not. It is certainly cinematic in a way that must have made it the perfect candidate for the 1956 movie and the1981 TV series, but the characters are down to earth, their successes and failures real, and the writing is of the highest standard. I didn’t realise before I read it but wasn’t surprised to find out afterwards that it was based on the actual experiences of a woman named Carry Geysel who was one of a group of 80 Dutch women forced to march 1,200 miles around Sumatra after they were taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. It struck chord with me because my Dutch-born grandmother was taken prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war in Java. The stories she has told me of the way that people coped and kept themselves going in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, are similar to those of the women and children described in this novel. In particular the little happy moments where people nicked food or little treats that made things bearable. Also, because she was of a similar age to Jean it makes it easier for me to imagine the bravery, understand the small kindnesses and what it meant for a woman at that time and that situation.
There are many important themes in the novel, but the key ones are of survival and later, philanthropy. In A Town Like Alice, people are judged by their deeds and personal strength, whatever their race or social status. Being set when it was, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is some racist language that is now considered inappropriate. However the language that is used makes sense in the context. I felt that for the era in which it was written, it was pretty well rounded and forward thinking in this regard. For example the Japanese are never portrayed as simply ‘bad’ – each character is judged on their actions as an individual.
I had a soft spot for the character of Noel Strachan, Jean’s lawyer who looks after her trust fund. The story is told from his point of view and his reminiscences which begin in stormy day in Scotland almost reminded me a little of the way in which Wilkie Collins’ stories are structured (although that’s probably because I’m reading Armadale right now). Noel has a sort of guardian-like role in the novel, looking after Jean’s affairs and as the book progresses you see his admiration for her grow. Some of his narrative pieces made me feel quite tearful.
A Town Like Alice is a truly satisfying novel. It’s original and captivating, with great characters but the reason I enjoyed it so much is that it’s a brilliant story. Definitely recommended.