Book Review – A Town Like Alice
A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, is a novel I have heard about since childhood yet until recently I had not read it. Having done so, I realise what I’ve missed.
The story, narrated by her solicitor, Noel Strachan, follows Jean Paget, daughter of a Scotswoman and an English army captain. After the First World War, the family moves from England to Malaya where Jean’s father works on a rubber estate. Jean’s father dies in a car accident when she is eleven, and the family returns to England.
Jean’s life, according to her, falls into three parts, ‘…the first two so separate from the rest that she could hardly reconcile them with her present self’.
Second World War
When Jean is about eighteen, she returns to Malaya to work as a shorthand typist on the same rubber planation in Kuala Lumpur where her father worked and where her brother now works. It is 1939 and the Second World War has just broken out. No one believes this is likely to affect Malaya and for eighteen months, Jean enjoys a wonderful social life.
The Japanese enter the war. However, when America soon follows, the expatriate community feels no threat. But soon after that, events move quickly, the Japanese draw ever-closer and there is a rush for the evacuation of women and children to Singapore. For a group of thirty-two women and children, however, who have missed the limited trucks, boats and flights out of Malaya, the Japanese reach them before they are able to escape.
Odyssey of Hardship
So begins an odyssey through Malaya for this group of women and children that will last three years. During this time, more than half will die of malaria and dysentery. They suffer from inadequate clothing, food and water, and endure long marches through all types of terrain, including unhealthy marshlands. They have ‘nowhere to go, because no one wanted us’. The conquering Japanese do not know what to do with them, no commander wants to take responsibility for them, so they are shunted as prisoners of war from one Japanese command post to another, always with the promise of redemption at the end of each relentless march. For the group, redemption is a prisoner of war camp.
Five months into their march, when the group of thirty-two has reduced to seventeen, they come across two Australian prisoners of war employed by the Japanese to drive and maintain their trucks. Sergeant Joe Harman, a ringer (stockman) from the Queensland Outback, stumps Jean with his Australian argot such as ‘dinky-die’ and ‘tucker’, but she soon finds out about his Aussie ingenuity when he obtains medicine, food and soap for them. In the short time they spend together, she encourages him to speak about his life in Queensland, which distracts and comforts them both from the grim realities of their current lives. Concerned at her impression that the middle of Australia is only desert, he corrects her, speaking fondly of Alice Springs. ‘Alice is a bonza place. Plenty of water in Alice.’
Joe obtains pork for the women and children by stealing a Japanese captain’s prize pig. But the theft is discovered and Jean is interrogated for hours, desperately clinging to an unlikely story in order to protect Joe. Her interrogators slap her face, kick her shins, and stamp on her bare feet with army boots. Joe Harman intervenes, admits to the theft, and is severely beaten, crucified and left for dead. The women and children are all made to watch the horror before they are forcibly marched off again.
The reduced group of women and children then spend three years living in a village. They labour as rice planters in exchange for having a home and food.
Return to England
Six years later, and back in England, Jean Paget is contacted by Noel Strachan who informs her that as the sole remaining heir in her family, she has inherited a considerable sum from an uncle. Jean decides to return to the village in Malaya to pay for a well to be constructed, in gratitude for the villagers’ kindness.
There, she learns something about Joe Harman, which sends her on an incredible quest.
If after reading this book review – A Town Like Alice – you’d like to read the story, you can find it here: A Town Like Alice.
Reading a book first published in 1950 is an interesting experience. The strongest curses used are ‘bloody’ (only a couple of times), ‘mucking’, a euphemism for the same word beginning with ‘f’ (used twice in one scene), and the exclamation ‘Oh my word!’ There is just one sex scene, although the characters only get a bit steamy and do not consummate the act. Overall, sex is mostly implied.
For World War Two history buffs, I’ll insert here what Shute says in his Author’s Note about historical veracity: ‘…I expect to be accused of falsifying history, especially in regard to the march and death of the homeless women prisoners. I shall be told that nothing of the sort ever happened in Malaya, and this is true. It happened in Sumatra.’
About Nevil Shute
Shute, whose full name was Nevil Shute Norway, was an aeronautical engineer born in England in 1899. He shortened his surname to Shute to avoid possible negative publicity around his novels that might affect his engineering career.
When Shute was fifty-one he emigrated with his family to Victoria, Australia, where he died at age sixty.
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Book Review – A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute