A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital/ 2010/ e-book/ Print length: 216 pages/ My own copy/ 4*

Stamboul Train was first published in the UK in 1932 and was renamed Orient Express when it was published in the USA. My copy is an e-book, with an Introduction by Christopher Hitchins.

I read it in February and didn’t find time to write about it then, so this is just a mini review that really only skates over the surface of the novel. I enjoyed it, set in the early 1930s, about a three day journey on the luxurious Orient Express travelling from Ostend to Constantinople (Instanbul or Stamboul), via Cologne, Vienna and Belgrade.

Greene weaves a web of subterfuge, murder and politics around his characters, including Carleton Myatt, a Jewish businessman, who trades in currants; Coral Musker, a dancer, a chorus girl on her way to join the Dunn’s Babies dance troupe in Constantinople; a journalist, Mabel Warren, a lesbian who drinks too much; Dr Czinner, a Yugoslavian on his own mission of revolution (as Hutchins describes it), a dissident communist leader, travelling under the name of schoolteacher Richard John – Mabel has recognised him as Dr Czinner and is after a scoop from him for her newspaper; and Josef Grünlich, a murdurous burglar. .

It’s a dismal book in some respects. Written in 1931, it reflects the anti-Semitism of the period, although I think Greene’s description of Myatt’s generosity towards Coral in giving her his berth in a first-class sleeping compartment shows some sympathy towards Jews. Having said that, I also think the characters as a whole are stereotypical, but the tension that he builds around them is palpable.

Greene’s storytelling saved the book for me, with descriptions of the train itself and the glimpses of the countryside as the train speeds along – as well as Myatt’s dramatic car journey through the snow-laden countryside to and from the railway station at Subotica on the Yugoslavian border. Written just as the Nazi party was preparing to take power in Germany there is a sense of unease throughout the novel.

The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, the first book in John le Carré’s Karla trilogy, a long time ago and I remember enjoying it very much. The story continues in the second book, The Honourable Schoolboy, which I think is brilliant. First published in 1977, it won the Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

It’s wide ranging, set in 1974 in London, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Phnom Pen (Cambodia), Vientiane (the capital and largest city of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) Laos. My paperback copy has a map which is on such a small scale and is so detailed that it’s hardly legible. But, at least I could just about make out the main locations!

To say this has a complicated plot is a huge understatement. The amount of detail is staggering and for a while I was rather confused about what was happening. It certainly isn’t a book to read when you’re tired – you need to read it with a clear mind and be prepared to let yourself get fully immersed in the story. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ends as George Smiley unmasks the identity of the ‘mole’, recruited by Karla, his Russian counterpart, as a spy within the British Secret Service. So, if you haven’t read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy you may want to read it before reading The Honourable Schoolboy because le Carré reveals the identity of that ‘mole’ in the first paragraph.

He then goes on to tell what happened afterwards as Smiley set about dealing with the consequences of that mole’s betrayal. He is appointed as a caretaker chief of the British Secret Service, known as ‘the Circus’, the name derived from the address of that organisation’s secret headquarters, Cambridge Circle. Smiley has Karla’s photo on his wall, determined to chase him down in revenge. Safe houses were closed and spies were recalled from abroad. In his search for Karla, Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, the eponymous Honourable Schoolboy to Hong King, undercover as a reporter, where he discovers a money laundering operation run by Moscow Intelligence and also an opium smuggling operation.

There are many characters and the action moves rapidly between Smiley in London and Westerby as he travels all over the various locations in the Far East. Le Carré’s style is clear and straight forward, the spy jargon, with the defined interwoven into the narrative, moving rapidly from one set of characters, all fully developed, to the next. Smiley, although the controlling character, is not present in much of the book. He is an enigmatic character, a lonely man, a ‘round little man in a raincoat’, as he walks alone in the evenings around the byways of London, immersed in his thoughts crammed with images, always ending in front of his own house where his estranged wife Ann lives.

From a slow start the pace steadily rose until the finale. It was gripped, eager to know how it would end. It was so much better than I thought when I began it and it’s definitely a book I’d like to re-read as I’m sure that I missed a lot in this first reading. But not right now as I’m keen to get on with the next book in the trilogy, Smiley’s People.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital| Oct 2010| 210 pages| my own copy| 4*

I heard of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American years ago. So when it was on offer for 99p at Amazon three years ago I bought the e-book version, with an Introduction by Zadie Smith. It’s one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. The nudge to read it now came from FictionFan’s Wanderlust Bingo as it fits nicely into the Southeast Asia Square as it is set in Vietnam * (see below). I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Vietnam before so I enjoyed it for its setting in Saigon and a glimpse of the situation in Vietnam under French colonialism in the early 1950s.

There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American. (Extract from Zadie Smith’s Introduction)

The Quiet American was first published in 1955 and is about America’s early involvement in Vietnam. It’s only the second book of Greene’s that I’ve read. The main characters are a cynical British journalist, Thomas Fowler, Phuong, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman who lives with him, and Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American – the ‘Quiet American,’ of the title. Phuong’s sister is keen for her and Fowler to marry, but he has a wife in England, who won’t agree to a divorce. Matters between all three characters come to a head when Pyle falls in love with Phuong and wants to marry her.

The book begins with a death and then goes back to the events that led up to that death. Although there is plenty of action the book revolves around these three characters and their relationships. Fowler is tired and jaded, addicted to opium and the thought of losing Phuong forces him to face the possibility of a lonely and bleak future. She meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes for him. Pyle, on the other hand is bright, confident and optimistic, certain that he can offer Phuong a better future.

The Americans at this time were not actively involved in the war against the Vietminh and Pyle has been sent to promote democracy and combat communism through a mysterious ‘Third Force’. However he is naive and gets involved in violent action causing injury and death to many innocent people. At that point Fowler realises he has to intervene.

*I know very little about Vietnam and its history, before the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and was a little confused about what was happening during the period in which this book is set and the references to the Vietminh. So, I had to look it up – In the late 19th century Vietnam was controlled by the French. In September 1945 the Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed its independence. From 1946 to 1954, the French opposed independence, and Ho Chi Minh led guerrilla warfare against them in the first Indochina War that ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. (see Britannica)

Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen with Maryanne Vollers

Ebury Press | 2001 | 379 p | Own copy | 5*

I read Ice Bound: One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival over two months, taking my time. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. She had just been through an acrimonious divorce and could no longer see her children.

The first part of the book describes life at the South Pole in detail, the layers of clothing needed in the extreme cold, the adjustments to living at 11,000 feet above sea level, and the difficulties of living at the pole with power failures, fires, frostbite, boredom, memory loss, nausea, and getting lost in the darkness and total whiteout. But she also describes the friendships she made and how she felt about celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at the South Pole:

It was the best birthday I had had since childhood. I was forty-seven and surrounded by friends, in a community that needed me, in a place that I loved, discovering more every day about what truly mattered in life. (page 138)

It’s about half way into the book that she describes when in the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. Whilst the Pole was cut off from the rest of the world in total darkness she treated herself, taking biopsies and having chemotherapy, until she was rescued by the Air National Guard in October 1999. She said this about her experience:

I can say that after living at the South Pole nothing can possibly terrify me, even looking at my own death. That is one of the many things this place does to you. Nothing after that really matters. (page 190)

The descriptions of the polar landscape are just beautiful:

I was fascinated by the concept of twilight and its three discrete stages. Yet all I truly understood was that the world outside the Dome seemed beautiful and alien every day. Now the sky was deep purple with bands of orange on the horizon. I was outside watching the sky one day when I saw my first aura. It looked like a shimmering green curtain, rolling in a solar wind, with pink searchlights shooting into the atmosphere like heaven’s own movie premier. The rest was silence and space. (page 147)

This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. Even without cancer I cannot imagine coping with life at the South Pole. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy so I have experienced some of what she went through, but it was nothing compared to what Jerri Nielssen had to go through. To take my own biopsies and administer my own chemotherapy like she did would be beyond me. It is hard for me to read even now years later and I found it immensely moving.

The book alternates between narrative and personal letters and emails and in her acknowledgments Jerri Nielssen thanks Maryanne Vollers for her help in telling her story. It held me spellbound from beginning to end.

I wanted to know what happened next to her. The book has an Epilogue that describes how she was treated – mastectomy, more chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer then went into remission, but in 2005 it returned in her bones and liver, later spreading to her brain and she died in June 2009. A brave and truly inspirational woman.