Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice 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.

22 responses to “Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice

  1. Ah, another one to shuffle up the TBR list!

  2. I saw this in Wimbledon Waterstones only yesterday and love, love, love the cover Vintage have done and almost bought it on the spot for that alone. Now I read this and want it even more, only I will wait and look for a copy with your fabulous cover. It’s the one my Gran has and really reminds me of my ‘youth’ in the Peaks – what an odd thing to take me down memory lane!

    • That Vintage is such a lovely cover isn’t it? I do love this seventies version although I’m not sure about Jean looking all seductive on it lol.

  3. I bought the new Vintage edition a few weeks back and will look forward to reading it.

  4. I should have a copy of the new Vintage edition later this week!

  5. If you liked this one, you are in for a treat, because Shute is a great story teller, and his other novels do not disappoint. He uses some racially charged language in a few of his books that is a little hard to stomach these days, but if you can get over that they are still worth reading. To be honest, of the five or so books of his that I have read, Alice was the least interesting to me. But that doesn’t diminish the merits of Alice.

  6. I should add about the racially charged language in Alice is nothing compared to his novel “In the Wet”. It is a great novel–it imagines an England that wants to do away with the monarchy and Australia and Canada essentially offer temporary refuge to the Royal Family–but one of the characters actually goes by the name N***** Anderson. He actually prefers to be called that, it is his nickname. And the character who is a close facsimile of the current Queen of England, actually calls him by that name. Imagine that word coming out of QEII’s mouth! It is quite disturbing.

  7. I’m glad you liked it! Love your review as well. I too felt for Noel. Please pick up some other Shute books; he’s a under-sung but first-rate storyteller.

  8. Requiem for a Wren is one of my favorites.

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