Book Review – A Town Like Alice

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’s Punishment

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.


Trailer acknowledged to The Movie Chronicles Inc. for this Book Review – A Town Like Alice

1950’s Literature

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.

Historical veracity

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.

If you enjoyed this Book Review – A Town Like Alice, read my review of The Incorrigible Optimists Club by Jean-Michel Guernassia. And watch out for more book reviews to come.

Contact me to chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may like a manuscript appraisal, or ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!

Accredited Editor (AE) – Institute of Professional Editors

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Gail Tagarro AE


Coming soon … Writer Coaching Ebook: Ten Ways to Super-Charge Your Writing! With bonus chapter on Self-Publishing !!

WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

Do you live on the Gold Coast, Brisbane or northern New South Wales? Or visiting the Gold Coast in March? Then I’d love you to join my March writers’ workshop, LET’S JUST WRITE!

What better way to spend a few hours on a Saturday, hanging out with like-minded people and writing? LET’S JUST WRITE! includes a series of fun, guided writing exercises to flex your writer’s muscles and let your creativity fly, in a fun and supportive environment

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Book Review – A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

The Incorrigible Optimists Club

the incorrigible optimists club

A Book Review

I had never heard of The Incorrigible Optimists Club or the Algerian-born writer Jean-Michel Guenassia. I came across it in the library when I was selecting books for my Christmas holiday reading. The original is written in French and I read the English translation by Euan Cameron.

It is quite untrue that covers don’t sell books. I was drawn to the cover and then I was hooked after reading the blurb and the first page. (It wasn’t until later that I noticed the border design of the book bizarrely matched that of my laptop case.)

I love long works of quality fiction, especially for Christmas holiday reading, and at 624 pages, this one fulfilled my craving.


A Highly Recommended Read!

The Incorrigible Optimists Club is one of those special books that’s hard to set aside when you have to do necessary things, like cook meals, or sleep.

It’s hard to believe that The Incorrigible Optimists Club is this author’s debut novel. Written against the backdrop of the Algerian War (the war for independence between France and the Algerian National Liberation Front 1954—1962), and the era of the Iron Curtain, the book offers no facile solutions to the issues raised. Neither does it excuse the terrible tragedies caused by politics and war. What’s more, the author manages to maintain an optimistic tone, and insert humour, despite the seriousness of some of the issues.

Paris 1959

The year is 1959, the place Paris. The story follows Michel Marin, a twelve-year-old compulsive reader and amateur photographer who’s a champion table football player at the local neighbourhood bistro.

But for his age, Michel has an extraordinary interest in the wider affairs of the world and a special empathy. He is drawn to a curtained-off area at the back of the bistro where a group of exiled Eastern European men gather to chat, play chess and smoke: the Incorrigible Optimists Club. As he is gradually accepted into their circle, he listens to their stories about their homelands before they fled to France, and becomes involved in their lives.

He forms a friendship with a Russian former doctor and expert chess player, Igor, who teaches Michel to play chess. He also becomes friends with another exile, Sacha, who is rigorously and aggressively denied access to the club, especially by Igor and another Russian, Leonid, whenever he dares show up. We do not learn until the end of the book why these two men hate him so much.

Michel becomes an important connection to the outside world for Sacha. In his turn, Sacha becomes a trusted sounding board for Michel’s teen angst in the absence of his father who has moved away from Paris when he and Michel’s mother, an aloof figure in Michel’s life, separate.

The club is also the occasional haunt of Jean Paul Sartre, French philosopher, writer and political activist, and Joseph Kessel, Argentinian-born French journalist and novelist. Many of the men in the club survive thanks to the generosity of Sartre and Kessel. The author drops these famous characters into his book as if he were telling the time of day, although the characters treat them with due reverence: “We gazed at him [Sartre] from a distance, slightly intimidated, feeling we were privileged witnesses of creativity in action, and even those who disliked him watched in silence…”

In the tense resolution of the story, Sacha’s strange rituals and the mysteries surrounding him are finally revealed in a way Michel could never have foreseen.


Jean-Michel Guenassia, The Incorrigible Optimists Club, 2014, Atlantic Books Ltd, London. Available through the Book Depository with free shipping.


Gail Tagarro, Editor (AE)


Contact me to have a chat about your manuscript. You may be ready for an edit, or you may like a manuscript appraisal, or to ask about writer coaching. Asking is free and I’m very approachable! Check out my testimonials while you’re on my website. Read some of the other informative blogs!

COMING SOON! Writer Coaching Ebook: Ten Ways to Super-Charge Your Writing! With bonus chapter on Self-Publishing

WRITERS’ WORKSHOP

Do you live on the Gold Coast, Brisbane or northern New South Wales? Or visiting the Gold Coast in March? Then I’d love you to join my March writers’ workshop, LET’S JUST WRITE!

What better way to spend a few hours on a Saturday, hanging out with like-minded people and writing? LET’S JUST WRITE! includes a series of fun, guided writing exercises to flex your writer’s muscles and let your creativity fly, in a fun and supportive environment

Check out the details on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/events/2231757230478839/