April 16, 2003

A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

I first heard of Nevil Shute when I was in elementary school and tried (and failed) to read On The Beach under the mistaken impression that it was a science fiction novel. Whatever else it was, it was completely over my head.

I first heard of A Town Like Alice when they made a mini-series out of it on national TV, many, many years ago (the mid-1970's, maybe)? I didn't watch it, though my parents did, and I saw snippets. I knew it took place in Australia, and somehow I got the idea that it was about a convict, a woman who had been transported to Australia and was having to work as a housemaid. Possibly I'm conflating two different TV spectaculars, but that's how it stuck in my memory.

I didn't put the two names together, or contemplate reading A Town Like Alice, until Ian Hamet wrote me a note and suggested that as I was going to Australia I should give Nevil Shute a try. I'm a history buff, I thought to myself, and A Town Like Alice is a historical novel; and I'm going to Australia, and A Town Like Alice is about Australia; and most likely I'll find a copy of it there.

And in fact, though I looked for it in several of the bookstores I visited, I didn't see anything by Shute at all while I was in Australia. Go figure. But I found a copy shortly after I got back to the States, and opened it, and finally stayed up late to finish it, which was a really bad idea given my jet lag, but was satisfying none the less. And this, even though everything I knew about the book was wrong.

It's the story of an English woman named Jean Paget, and the action begins during the second world war. Jean's family has business interests in Malaya, and after going to school in England she's working as a secretary in the company office there when the Japanese invade. She's captured and marched off to a POW camp with a large group of other women and children--except that there is no camp to receive them. Eventually, after many hardships and forced marches over a good bit of Malaya, the surviving women, led by Jean, manage to settle down in a village and wait out the war. During their marches, they encounter an Australian POW named Joe Harman who's being made to drive a truck for the Japanese, and who helps the women out at the risk of his own life.

Years later, when the war is over, Jean receives a legacy from a distant relative, and becomes reasonably wealthy. She visits Malaya to say thank you to the villagers who took her in--and while there discovers that Joe Harman, a man she'd thought had been killed by the Japanese, is in fact still alive, and everything changes for her.

It says something about the book that the plot I've summarized so far is only part of the story; the best is yet to come, and I won't spoil it for you.

I've been trying to think what else to say about this book, other than "Go find a copy and read it." It's a little slow getting started (though not in a bad way), as the story is narrated by the solicitor who is the executor of Jean Paget's legacy and it takes him a while to locate her and longer still for her to begin to tell him her story. But once we've passed that, things take off. I'm still pondering why Shute felt that the solicitor was necessary to the story; he mostly serves to distance us from Jean Paget and Joe Harman. Perhaps Shute simply felt that the horrors of war were still too close to most people (the book was published in 1950), and that some distance was needed. I dunno.

But the book works, and where it especially works is not the broad sweep of the story but the little details along the way, especially the details of frontier life in mid-20th-century Australia. (Rather like the Wild West--and yet, very different.) I was especially taken with the explanation of why Joe Harman didn't die at the hands of the Japanese--and it's a great frustation to me, because if I tell you, I'll spoil it.


Go find a copy and read it, or you'll never know what poddy dodging is all about.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 16, 2003 05:59 PM

Sharon Page said:

What happened to the Harman family do they still live in Willstown Australia

Will Duquette said:

Alas, Joe and Jean were fictional.

Sophie said:

My favourite book in the entire world!
did you get to visit the town in australia where jean stayed for a while?