A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is another classic book that is difficult (and possibly pointless) to review. But I’ve just read it for the first time, and it’s worth a review in any case. My grandmother sent me the book a couple of years ago, and every time she’s seen me since she’s asked, “have you read it yet?” And so yes, Sylvia, yes I have!
It was first published in 1950, and is set in that post-war period. It has an old-fashioned tone, narrated by a lawyer named Mr Strachan, an old man and widower who appears to have plenty of time on his hands. His story describes the life of his client, a Miss Jean Paget, between the years of her twenties until her early thirties. It begins with probably the longest flashback I’ve ever come across in a book, as he recounts what occurred to her while she was a prisoner of war in the ‘East’. She and a band of women and children were forced to walk hundreds of miles across Malaysia in search of a prison camp. Each Japanese commander they came across, too busy to really care, turned them away. It was during this time that she witnessed something truly horrific, which changed her life.
From Malaysia, to England, to the outback of Australia – this is a love story at its heart. Good things can come from horror, or at least this book would have you think. Good things also come to people who have plenty of money. I’m not sure if that was supposed to be the message, but it rang loud and clear all the same. Miss Paget had dough, and with it she eventually got everything she ever really wanted (nice eh?).
The vastly different terrains covered in this book are interesting to read about from a geographic point of view at the very least. When in Malaysia, I could feel the sticky heat, hear the insects, smell the decay. In the Outback (in which the second half of the book is set – ‘Alice’ is in reference to Alice Springs) I could see the men and their horses outside the old wooden hotel, taste the cold beer, feel the baking sun. The fact it was written about seventy years ago does mean there were times I squirmed a bit as people of different ethnicities were described (basically anyone not white). It’s also quietly sexist – again, a product of its time.
Despite this, it’s an easy read and reasonably enjoyable. I didn’t feel there was anything ground-breaking about it – I wasn’t at any point blown away by what I read – but it’s a solid story. Like many older English books it’s all very proper and restrained. By the end I quite liked the narrator, Mr Strachan, and felt a little touched and saddened by the fact he felt he had to write it all down.
Interestingly, this is what my grandmother (born 1931) had to say in the letter she sent me with the book:
Here is a book that I have always enjoyed and is probably a good representative of its time – which of course is no guarantee that you will find it easy to get through. At least I have worked out its appeal for me – it’s because it covered my ERA and I can understand the MORES & MORALS of the time.
I remember the war years and the horror stories, plus the austerity that still prevailed at the time when we left England. Then – the time that Dot and I went to outback Australia (1952) would be virtually the same time as the heroine first went there and became aware of how hard life was – the climate, the isolation and the womens’ lot.
I can also identify with the money value at the time because when we left England tradesmen in the building trade were earning between 2/6d and three shillings per hour – roughly $13 for a 45 hour week, and a labourers wage was roughly $9 or $10 per week – from which tax was deducted. Working in the office I earned $2-50 per week, which was good for that day and age. I have added the above information to show that her legacy, which doesn’t sound much these days, really was a fortune at that time.
Anyway, give it a go – and if you don’t like it blame it on how times have changed.