"A Town Like Alice"

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

This novel has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I bought it second hand a couple of years ago mostly because I liked the title (my middle name is Alice - yeah I know, that's a poor excuse to buy a book, if there are, in fact, any poor excuses to buy books) and threw it on the shelf thinking I'd get around to reading it sometime. Sometime arrived this week.

This is my first Neville Shute novel and I have to say I'm very impressed with his story-telling ability; he has whatever gift it takes to grab and hold a reader's attention. A Town Like Alice tells the story of Jean Paget, a young British woman living in Malaya when World War II breaks out. When Malaya is occupied by the Japanese, the British families are split up, the men are sent to prison camps, and Jean and the women and children are forced to walk hundreds of miles with almost no food or medical care. Every time they arrive at one destination, the authorities there refuse to take responsibility for them and order them to walk on to the next place. They lose many as disease and exhaustion take their toll.

On their trek they come into contact with an Australian man, also a prisoner of the Japanese, who does what he can to help them. When he steals chickens for them he is tortured and by all appearances killed. When the war ends, Jean goes home to England and tries to resume a normal life. (Spoiler alert) Then she gets word that the Australian who did so much for them in Malaya has survived. In the way of star-crossed lovers everywhere, he goes to England to look for her, while she goes to Australia to look for him, and that's all I will say about the story for now.

One of the best parts of this book is the character who narrates the story. He is the elderly solicitor who meets Jean when her uncle includes her in his will. He develops a great fondness for her and a regular correspondence is established between them. I love this character and the way he tells Jean's story. He is a combination of old school manners, noble character, and good, honest, heart. This one character alone makes the book worth reading, but other things do, too. The book has a strong story line and it is very well told.

The only aspect of the book that gave me pause was a question that Jean asked about serving whites and (Australian) aboriginals in the same ice-cream shop and was told she would have to create a separate area for them. I realize the book was written in the 1950's and it was a different time, but I lost some respect for the two main characters when that became an issue. I don't care what societal norms were, wrong is wrong and will never be right. It was a disappointment to see that in an otherwise very good book.

So, all in all I liked the book and recommend it if you're looking for a good story to get lost in. While it is basically fiction, it does have it's inspiration in a true story that took place in Sumatra, not Malaya, during the second world war.


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