Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result.
‘A Town Like Alice’ is a classic which loses none of its appeal with the passage of time. The description of life for the English women and children who are unwanted prisoners of the Japanese, forced to march for months on end by Japanese officers who refuse to take responsibility for them, is harrowing. You would be forgiven for saying that something as inhumane as that could never have happened – but it did, though in Sumatra not Malaya. Mr Shute met with one of those women after the war, and this novel is a tribute to her strength and endurance and that of those who were held with her, and those who died during their long captivity.
You may also be forgiven for thinking that the story must be depressing, it is not. This is a novel of hope not despair. Mr Shute uses his characters to show us the good in humanity, the willingness to help others despite personal cost – Joe, the Australian soldier, who stole to feed the women, with tragic consequences; Jean’s struggles as she tries to cope with the ‘normality’ of England after the war, unable to begin life again because of a burden of guilt she carries from her time as a prisoner; the kindness and support show to Jean by her solicitor, Noel. Mr Shute skilfully weaves a believable plotline which takes Jean back to Malaya and on to Australia, searching for answers and for a purpose in life. Can she re-build her life in a new country in ‘a town like Alice (Springs)’ which Joe told her so much about?
This is a well-researched and well written novel in which Mr Shute immerses the reader in life in three very different locations – war-torn Malaya, bombed out London and the developing outback – with the effortlessness of a master wordsmith. This is a story of ordinary people with an extraordinary tale to tell; a timeless tale of love and loss, of romance and redemption. ‘A Town Like Alice’ is one of the books I’ve read more than once and always enjoy coming back to. If you have never read this modern classic you really must give it a go.
‘A Town Like Alice’ can be purchased from Amazon
You can find out about more about the life and work of Nevil Shute at the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation