Book Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

To tell you the truth, I usually steer clear of classics. I like to keep on top of trends and current reads because I think they can teach you a lot about the world as it is today. For some reason though, I was drawn to A Town Like Alice when I was in the Dymocks city store recently. I’m interested in Australia’s history at the moment. I want to learn more in order to better understand how it is we’ve got to this point. I believe you can learn a lot from fiction; just because the characters aren’t real, doesn’t mean the sentiment isn’t.

So I picked it up. And when I told Jody I was reading an Australian classic, she immediately got on board, rushing out to buy Picnic at Hanging Rock.

A Town Like Alice was first published in 1950 and is written by Nevil Shute. It’s the story of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman taken prisoner during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II. The Japanese force a small band of women, including Jean, to march across the country and they endure many trials and many die. Jean’s ability to speak Malay makes her the reluctant leader of this tribe, and her strength and lateral thinking enable many others to survive.

During their ordeal, the group comes across a rag-tag bunch of Aussie blokes who attempt to steal food and medicine for Jean. One of these is Joe Harman, a ringer who lingers in Jean’s mind for many years after. After she inherits a small fortune, she sets out to find herself again in Malaya, and later Australia.

The story is told by an old man, Noel, who is enamoured by Jean and her story and stays in contact with her as she travels across the world. He’s a lonely figure who lives to receive Jean’s letters and help her with her finances. He tells the story as if it’s his last, and this lends poignancy and richness to the writing.

I have spent the winter writing down this story, I suppose because an old man loves to dwell upon the past and this is my own form of the foible.

I loved this book. I devoured it for its glimpse into Australian history, into small-town life, into the trials of being a strong female in a period where that was considered downright strange. It’s the perfect book to read if you’re ever touring the top end of Australia because it gives you an understanding of how the country developed from the gold-rush to farming, to big-city life and the trials in between. There are certainly aspects I found uncomfortable, particularly the treatment of Aboriginals – the language used, the slave-like exploitation, and the segregation. It rings true to the period though, and it’s written matter-of-factly. It helped me realise how far we’ve come since then, but also how much further we need to go to repair the bonds so shattered by colonial settlement.

A Town Like Alice is a fantastic Australian classic and I’m glad I picked it up! I think I might reread Seven Little Australians next. Does anyone have any other recommendations?