First published in 1950 A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and now I have at last read it. It was not quite what I had imagined it to be, about Alice Springs in Australia. It is actually set in three parts, with just the third part set in Australia, not in Alice Springs but in Willstown, a fictional town in the outback.
Narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor, this is the story of Jean Paget. It begins a few years after the Second World War, when he tells her she has inherited a considerable sum of money from her uncle. But it is held in trust until she reaches the age of thirty five. Until then she will receive about £900 a year to spend. She wonders what to do with the money and eventually decides she wants to go back to Malaya, where she had been a prisoner of war, to dig a well. She tells Noel about what had happened to her in Malaya.
The second part is about that time in Malaya during the War at the time when the Japanese invaded the island. Jean and a group of European women and children were forced by the Japanese to walk for hundreds of miles from place to place before finally managing to stay in one village. Able to speak Malay and being courageous and resourceful, she takes on the role of the leader of their group. She met an Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who was driving a lorry for the Japanese and they became friends with disastrous consequences. This section is the best in the book to my mind.
On her return after the War she writes to Noel telling him how she set about organising the villagers to dig the well so that the women would have fresh water close to their houses and also build a washing-house. And it is here that she learns more about what had happened to Joe and decides to carry on travelling to Australia to find him and thank him for the help he had given her and the other women.
The third part is set in Australia. Jean is an organiser and on her arrival in Willstown she discovers that this is a place where the young women leave as soon as they are old enough. There are no jobs or entertainment to keep them there. So Jean decides she wants to make the town into a town just like Alice Springs. And she does this with remarkable success building a workshop for the girls to make shoes and handbags, providing an ice cream parlour and a public swimming pool and shops. At the same time her search for Joe is eventually successful. She continues writing to Noel about her life in the Australian outback, letters full of detail about her enterprises and the difficulties of cattle ranching in such isolated places – a bit too much detail for me really. But the episode where Jean helped in rescuing an injured stockman is full of drama.
This is really just the bare bones of the story – there is so much more to it than that. Others have commented on the casual racism in the book. It tells it as it was, how people lived at the time, and reflects the attitudes that people had. Jean is of course the main character, a woman somewhat ahead of her time with great strength of character, determination and entrepreneurial skills. The resourcefulness she showed in Malaya is developed in Australia.
In his Author’s Note Shute explains that the forced march during WW2 took place in Sumatra and not in Malaya and the women in the group were Dutch and not British. As in his novel, the local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area and took them on a trek all around Sumatra that lasted for two and a half years.
Jean Paget was based on Mrs Geysel, whom Shute had met when he visited Sumatra in 1949. She had been one of the Dutch party, then aged 21, recently married and with a young baby she had carried for over twelve hundred miles around Sumatra. A remarkable story that I really enjoyed.