Desert Island Books: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

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Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins.

When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many.

Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.

After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs…

The eighth book on my Desert Island Books list is A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, which is one of my favourite love stories. And I am not just talking about the romance between the young English girl, Jean Paget, and the heroic Australian, Joe Harman, but the underlying, unrequited love that the narrator, Noel, feels for Jean, and which informs the whole way he tells her story.

This is a book of two halves. The story starts with the reader being introduced to a lawyer, Noel Strachan, who is employed by an infirm Scottish gentleman to draw up his will, some time in the early 1930s. The war then intervenes, and after the war, the gentleman dies and Noel has to track down his niece, and inform her that she has come into an inheritance, of which he is the trustee. So Noel’s involvement in Jean’s life begins. 

During the course of administering the trust, Noel hears Jean’s story of being taken prisoner in Malaya during the war and being marched across the country with a party of other women because the Japanese don’t know what to do with them. A terrible incident occurs during this time which deeply affects Jean and stops her fully recovering after the war. She tells the whole horrifying story of her wartime experiences to Noel, so we hear them as he does, firsthand. Before I read this book for the first time as a teenager, I knew very little of what had occurred during the war in the Far East, as my school studies of the period concentrated on the action in Europe, so this story really piqued my interest and encouraged to to expand my reading on the subject to the wider content of the war beyond the repercussions in Europe to the actions of the Japanese and the involvement of our Commonwealth allies. This is what good fiction can do, encourage further reading into the actual events upon which they are based, even if the fiction is written with a little poetic licence.

In the second half of the book, the action moves to Australia and Jean’s attempts to find Joe Harman after the war, and how together they work to expand a community in the Australian outback. I know some people find the second half of the book less exciting, given the horror and high drama of the first half, but they are missing the point. For a young, ambitious girl on the brink of adulthood with big plans for her future, this story of a woman alive in a time of burgeoning opportunity for females, who defies convention and strikes out into the unknown on her own, following her heart but using her head as well, was revelatory. Whilst it is hard to recognise the kind of attitudes that prevailed in that day when reading from a modern day position, I defy anyone not to be inspired by Jean Paget and be cheering her on from the sidelines

If you are coming to A Town Like Alice for the first time in 2020, it is going to make you very uncomfortable in parts. The attitudes to gender, colour and a lot more besides are going to be jarring when you look at them with a twenty-first century eye, and I know people will find this off-putting. This is a book of its time, it reflects society as it was in the early 1950s and needs to be read with that firmly in mind. If nothing else, it gives a clear picture of how far attitudes have moved on since then, even if we have a long way still to go. But setting these acknowledged issues with the novel aside, this is a uplifting and tender love story of triumphs in the face of adversity, powerful love overcoming severe obstacles, and how love can take many forms, and how wonderful it it when reciprocated. For anyone who is a true romantic, this is a beautiful story.

I have read this book many times over the last 30+ years. Inbetween readings, I sometimes wonder whether it will continue to age well, or if one day I will come back to it and find it no longer speaks to me. Although there are aspects of it which are unpalatable in our, hopefully, more enlightened times, the core story of a brave, resourceful and determined young woman setting out to find the man she loves and build a good life for them both is still moving and inspiring and I would definitely like to have it with me on my desert island to remind me what people can achieve if they set their minds to it.

A Town Like Alice is available in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Nevil Shute Norway was born on 17 January 1899 in Ealing, London. After attending the Dragon School and Shrewsbury School, he studied Engineering Science at Balliol College, Oxford. He worked as an aeronautical engineer and published his first novel, Marazan, in 1926. In 1931 he married Frances Mary Heaton and they went on to have two daughters. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve where he worked on developing secret weapons. After the war he continued to write and settled in Australia where he lived until his death on 12 January 1960. His most celebrated novels include Pied Piper (1942), No Highway (1948), A Town Like Alice (1950) and On the Beach (1957).

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