"A Town Like Alice" by Nevil Shute

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Nevil Shute proved in The Checquer Board and in A Town Like Alice that he can write unforgettably sympathetic characters in heroic and romantic situations. In Checquer Board a British veteran of World War II returns to Southeast Asia to the woman he loves. In A Town Like Alice a compelling female protagonist, treated mercilessly by the Japanese occupiers in Malaya, discovers after six years that a heroic Australian soldier, whose kindness proves the difference between life and death, is still alive, contrary to what she believed. The heart soars to read these plainly-told narratives.

Jean Paget is a young English girl who spent significant time in her childhood in Malaya, where her father worked for a British company. After passing her teen years repatriated in Southampton, she heads again to the Malay Peninsula to take a clerk-typist job with the same company. War breaks out at this time and the area very quickly falls to Japanese occupation. The book contains a very full depiction of the horrid hardship that follows: a group of more than 30 women and children must march hundreds of miles in the next two years as a series of Japanese commanders shuns them, wanting no responsibility for such a headache. During this time Jean meets Joe Harman, who provides the sorry troupe with meat, medicine, and fresh fruit, clearly saving their lives. Their occupiers found out about the pilferage, torture Joe by beating and crucifixion, and Jean and her group are forced to move on.

The balance of the book involves Jean’s and Joe’s discoveries about each other: Jean discovers that Joe is still alive, and Joe discovers that Jean, whom he first met when she carried a small child on her hip, was never married. Jean’s London solicitor
does what he can to bring them together; the whole is a highly gratifying read, tear-inducing at times. I found the financial dealings in the final chapters captivating, as Jean turns into a tycoon of the Australian Outback.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the plot here, because it’s set up so well, and allowed to unfold at its own pace, with its own roadblocks and problems. Shute deals with racism, a continuing theme in his work, and war crimes, but the energy generated by our heroic couple and their devotion to each other drives this novel. Shute’s knowing portrayal of the inhospitable Outback, and of the investment required to make it more livable, ring spot-on true.

This novel has achieved the status of a classic, and it’s a designation I fully concur with. It has dramatic action, extreme physical stress, beautiful descriptions of Southeast Asian and Australian landscapes, true love, and a highly honorable moral code. Pick this up and let it accompany you forever.

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