Monday, September 19, 2016

Review of A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (1950, Heinemann)

The late 1930s and a young Jean Paget travels back to Malaya to work for the company that used to employ her father.  When the island is invaded by the Japanese she and the family she has been staying with are captured.  The men are sent to a camp, but unsure what to do with the women and children they are marched to south towards Singapore.  For seven months the women criss-cross the country, one-by-one dying of exhaustion or disease, no-one wanting to take responsibility for them.  With her resolve and ability to speak fluent Malay, Jean becomes their unofficial leader.  On the way they meet two Australians, one of whom takes a shine to Jean.  However, in trying to help the women he pays a terrible price.  Eventually the small group sees out the rest of the war in a Malay village tending rice paddies.  After the war, Jean settles in England, but when she inherits some money she decides she wants to return to Malaya to thanks the villagers who took her in.  From there she decides to travel to Australia and the outback where she discovers her next great challenge.

It’s been a while since I read a story told by a narrator.  In this case it is Noel Strachan, the solicitor for Jean Paget’s uncle.  Encountering Jean for the first time after the Second World War he gets to know her well and continues to correspond with her for many years later.  The book is his recounting of her life from the late 1930s to early 1950s. During this time Jean has two major adventures, the first surviving the war in Malay as a prisoner of the Japanese, the second, making a new life for herself in the Australian outback.  In both case she takes on the role of unassuming leader, someone with the resourcefulness and vision to make a go of things and to realise goals.  Through Strachan Shute tells an engaging tale of trials and tribulations, one that is sometimes fraught and deadly, but has at its core the values of resilience, hope and love.  The central characters of Jean and Joe are both likeable, and Shute nicely portrays their chemistry and story, as well as the wider story of the war in Malaya and post-war rural life in Australia.  The voice, pacing and sense of place in Malaya and Australian are nicely done.  Overall, an interesting and evocative tale of a young woman coming of age in difficult circumstances.

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