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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice (1950)

by Nevil Shute

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This book takes place in the years during and after World War II, so it probably spans the '40s and into the '50s.

Jean Paget is a young woman who finds herself the recipient of a large trust fund. The story flashes back to a time during WWII, when Jean was essentially a prisoner of war amid a large group of women in Malaysia. They spend months being marched all across the region where no one wants responsibility for them. During their time on foot, Jean meets another prisoner of war by the name of Joe.

Joe is cow wrangler from the outback of Australia, and a captured prisoner of war. The Japanese have discovered he is handy, and have put him to use as a mechanic. Joe and Jean become friends, with Joe mistakenly believing that Jean is a married woman separated from her husband by war, like most of the other women in her group. He takes to jokingly calling her "Mrs. Boong" (and I never really got why he did this). NOTE: The aboriginal workers on the ranches in Australia are referred to as "boongs", which is thought of as a derogatory term. Wikitionary says that this is also a Malayan term for "brother". Hence my confusion regarding Joe's humorous use of it as a nickname for Jean.

Jean was a young girl in her early 20s during this period (the youngest of the women in the group), but very bright and a skilled office worker (which was why she was in Malaysia). She seems to know a little about a lot of things, she speaks some of the native tongue, and she becomes something of a spokesperson for the female POWs.

Years after the war, after Jean has inherited her fortune, she remembers the conversations that she and Joe had about a town called Alice in Australia. She heads to Australia to see this land for herself, and to try to find Joe again. And that is where the second half of the story occurs, as Jean finds Australia holds an adventure for her that she never expected.

The story is narrated by Noel Strachan, the attorney who wrote up the trust fund and is the executor of the estate. He and Jean form a relationship that lasts until his death.

My final word: I liked this story. I liked the female empowerment storyline. I enjoyed the first half more than the second half (the first half taking place in Malaysia), but there was a certain charm to be found in the second half. I was disturbed at how easily Jean seemed to accept bigotry and cruelty, but perhaps that was a sign of the times and era. Overall this was a nice introduction to Nevil Shute. Using Noel as the narrator was an interesting choice. Some in my book club thought the story would have been better narrated by Jean herself. I do think the story would have been a totally different animal if that choice had been made, but I understand the need to have Noel narrate. Otherwise you would have lost all of his insight concerning his complex relationship with Jean. This was a nice, quick read. ( )
  nfmgirl2 | Nov 12, 2015 |
I've heard about A Town Like Alice for years, and finally got around to listening to it. While it was interesting, and while I liked it, I don't sing its praises as many do.

The story was intriguing, starting off with a misogynist attitude disguised as protection. The attitudes in this 1950 book were rather startling – the casual disregard of the “abos,” the indigenous Australians, and the acceptance of cruelty – stealing animals and leaving them penned without food or water for days to break them. Of course, there was the brutality of war, but our attitudes toward that haven't changed much – brutality is still acceptable. Women, except for the lead character Jean Paget were too much portrayed as spineless simpletons. Jean though was tough. Very tough. I liked her entrepreneurial spirit.

I got really, REALLY tired of the phrase, “Oh my word!” Over and over and over....

But what caused me to like this book less than I would otherwise was how it devolved into a hasty romance. I expected better. While this novel was based on real people, there was historical inaccuracy, so read it as a novel, not as fictionalized fact. Entertaining, but not a favorite. ( )
  TooBusyReading | Nov 9, 2015 |
This book almost seems like 2 stories put together in a single book. The first is the story of the occupation of Malaya by the Japanese and the forced walk around Malaya of a group of women and children. The second is more of a colonization story where a woman tries to build up a small town in Australia. Although both stories are good, it felt odd to switch gears in the middle of the book. I loved the first story -- definitely 5 stars for me. The 2nd story was fine, but it seemed like a bit of an anticlimax after the strong and emotional first story. Still enjoyable and recommended. ( )
  jmoncton | Sep 28, 2015 |
Six-word review: Resourceful young woman meets challenges boldly.

Extended review:

Can a story be warm without being sentimental? Can it be sweet without being saccharine or cloying?

Nevil Shute's 1950 novel A Town Like Alice answers those questions with a resounding yes.

Can it also be rugged without being harsh, emotional without being manipulative, unhurried without being boring?

Yes, yes, yes.

How about succeeding as a novel without having a villain--obstacles, but no villain? Being driven by challenges but not conflict? Using a first-person narrator who has little involvement in the action and does a fair amount of telling rather than showing?

Absolutely yes.

I don't know what the prevailing wisdom of writing workshops and critique groups was in the 1940s, or even if there was such a thing then; but I take considerable pleasure in seeing this wonderful, stirring, memorable novel work on every level without adhering to the formulas and conventions that are being drilled into hopeful would-be authors today by instructors who are often only repeating what they were told in their turn. Speakers who stand up and pontificate before a group of amateur writers hungry for publication success, when all they themselves have to their credit is a single self-published novel that on inspection desperately needed a rafter-rattling edit, recite received doctrine as if they were priests delivering the teachings of a long-departed master to a congregation of acolytes.

This absorbing novel brings us Jean Paget, a capable and deeply likeable young woman who would be unjustly served by the condescending cliches that spring inevitably to mind: spunky, plucky, indomitable, and the like. What we need for Jean is not adjectives but verbs. Attempts. Persists. Overcomes. Accomplishes.

As a member of a group of English women and children taken prisoner by Japanese forces in Malaya during World War II, Jean confronts devastating ordeals and learns to survive. Back in England, she receives an unexpected legacy from a distant relative and decides to return to Malaya. Her further journey takes her far into the desolate outback of Australia, where she begins a new life. The narrator's evident affection for her and concern for her well-being shape her account of her experiences into a warm and moving story about people you'd like to know.

This is not a perfect novel nor a literary masterpiece. For me, it doesn't have to be in order to rate five stars. But it does have to merit a sincere "well done" by as objective a measure as I can apply, and it also must be entirely satisfying. It is.

In addition to the character of Jean, both admirable and believable, I found the depiction of life in the incomprehensibly immense spaces of wild Australia fascinating. Shute emigrated with his family from England to Australia in 1950 and spent the last ten years of his life there. His descriptions of the country and the people sound compellingly authentic.

The one difficulty I had with the novel is a product of its place, time, and culture: racism is taken for granted and not questioned. Terms now considered racially offensive are used casually, and the low regard for nonwhite races among the white populations is represented without apology. I don't blame Shute for reflecting what he knew as he knew it, but I still find those elements hard to read. ( )
12 vote Meredy | Jul 5, 2015 |
The great thing about Nevil Shute is that he doesn't rush his story. This is a slow paced tale, and avoids cliches. It's a good thing I didn't read the blurb on the back as it gave away a major plot twist...
This book is very good at creating a sense of place. The only disconcerting element is the Australian Aborigines. You have to realise that the book is a picture of the time it was written and thus, the names given to the natives reflect the kind of names that were given to them at the time, and that there were times and places where segregation took place. (I should add that the characters themselves generally treat native people with respect)
Jean Paget, the heroine is a great character - practical and pragmatic. She has a head on her shoulders and takes the initiative when action is needed - her solutions are always realistic. ( )
  JudithProctor | Jun 27, 2015 |
This is the story of Jean Paget. Jean is a typist and finds herself in Malaya during the Second World War. There she along with thirty four other women and children are captured by the Japanese. As the Japanese did not have a prison camp for women, these women and children were marched from place to place. In the final three years they settle down in a village and live as natives. Along the way they are helped by a group of truck drivers who happened to be Australian prisoners. One of them Joe Harman, is crucified for this but somehow survives the ordeal.

Later when the war is over Jean works in a leather goods manufacturing unit back in England. She inherits a substantial sum of money from a distant relative and immediately decides to go back to the village in Malaya and build a well and a washing house for the village women. There she discovers that Joe Harman is still alive and goes in search of him to the Australian outbacks. There she marries Joe and converts his little village into a prosperous town.

This is a story of will and entrepreneurship. The first half is more engaging but the book overall is good. A 3.5/5 star read. ( )
  mausergem | May 28, 2015 |
What a marvellous read this is! ( )
  HelenBaker | Feb 5, 2015 |
A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute *****

I first discovered Nevil Shute a year or so ago when I picked up a copy of ‘On the Beach’, I loved every page and it has remained in my top five reads and will probably always stay there. Since this I have been slowly working my way through the rest of his 20 plus novels. Unlike most people I have never seen the film of ‘A Town Like Alice’, so other than the blurb description I didn’t really know what to expect.

What is it about?
We uncover the story of Jean Paget as told to the reader through her Solicitor Noel Strachan. Following the death of his wealthy client a considerable fortune is inherited by Jean in the form of an annual income and a trust fund that will not mature until she reaches her mid thirties. Because of a clause in the will Strachan is able to advance Jean a lump sum should he feel the expenditure is worthy. Once Jean is identified as the benefactor a meeting is arranged between the two which quickly develops into a friendship. Jean tells her tale of how she spent the war as a prisoner on a forced march through Malaya. During this time she encountered a friendly Australian POW who, through his acts of kindness helps her survive. They fall in love but circumstance tears them apart. The rest of the novel details her life in post war years and how she decides to carve out a new future from her newfound wealth.

What did I like?
Shute always manages to write convincingly of a time that no longer exists, a time when manners and chivalry were abundant. He really drags you into the lives of the characters and allows you to feel their emotions. This book is essentially a love story, the type of genre I would normally run a mile from, but the author manages to make it into so much more than that. When he needs to add effect Shute is not afraid to let you have it with full force. You feel the pain suffered during those prison camp years, you are appalled by the brutality suffered under the Japanese guards, and more than anything you want to right the injustices. The book is set in the 40s/50s and although at times it may seem a little dated, that just adds to its charm.

What didn’t I like?
There wasn’t really anything to dislike, but if I was forced to be picky I would say that the 3rd quarter of the book did get slightly repetitive, but this was saved by the ending.

Would I recommend it?
Definitely, although I still think On the Beach is his greatest novel, this also wouldn’t be a bad place to start. ( )
2 vote Bridgey | Feb 5, 2015 |
This was a wonderful story full of historical adventure set during and after World War II that stretched over England, Malaya (now Malaysia) and Australia. I loved the tone of the book, the pace, and the strong female protagonist as well as her love interest. I especially liked how the story was crafted from the point of view of an English solicitor administering an estate who interjects his opinions along the way and grows just as fond of his client as the reader does. The history lessons regarding the Japanese occupation of Malaya and its impact on the British living there and life in the Australian outback only enhanced my enjoyment of this novel. ( )
  kellifrobinson | Nov 25, 2014 |
This World War II post WWII is a romance story set in Malaysia and Australia with short visits to England. The heroine, Jean Paget is one of the strongest female protagonist. Joe Harmon is an endearing Aussie who is not above stealing, and the trustee,Noel Strachan is a lonely widower. While this is a romance, it is also strong on themes of economic development. The author is an aeronautical engineer and airplanes are abundant in the novel as well. The story is told through a narrator (Noel) who really is reminiscing and sharing from letters he has received or visits he has had. ( )
  Kristelh | Jul 18, 2014 |
A Town Like Alice tells the story of Jean, an English citizen living in Malaysia when she is part of a group of women taken prisoner by the Japanese during the war. No one in command knows what to do with them, so the women are marched back and forth across the country with no end to their suffering in sight. They meet an Australian soldier named Joe, also a prisoner of the Japanese who tries to improve things for them, to his own detriment. I won't say more about the plot, except to say that for me, the wartime events were the highlight and the plot sort of meandered from there.

But I just couldn't enjoy this book at all because of the casual racism. I've read plenty of books that feature racism, but its presence in this one really bothered me. A nickname Joe had for Jean was supposed to be cute, apparently, but it was based on a racial slur. It's not a racial epithet I'm familiar with in my country, which might make it go down easier for many people, but I just kept mentally substituting one that I am familiar with, and it turned my stomach. And in the second half of the book (taking place in Australia), the racism only gets worse. It made me find Jean extremely unpleasant, and the author as well, because the racism wasn't confined to a character trait of Jean's or Joe's, but was part of the descriptive narrative as well.

Recommended for: no one.

Quote: "They were big, well-set-up young men, very like Negroes in appearance and, like Negroes, they seemed to have plenty to laugh about." ( )
  ursula | Jun 5, 2014 |
3.5! ( )
  patsaintsfan | May 23, 2014 |
I was pleasantly surprised with this book. I was a little afraid to pick it up because I love 'On the Beach' so much, and I knew that this was going to be a completely different type of novel.

Different it was, but it was still incredibly well done. We get the experiences of a woman taken in a group of prisoners during WWII in Malaysia. Every time you get the feeling that you know what the central plot or theme of the book is, it changes. I love that the reader is taken from Scotland to Malaysia to London to Australia.

Excellent piece of fiction. ( )
  steadfastreader | Mar 18, 2014 |
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.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-town-like-alice-by-nevil-shute.html ( )
  LukeS | Oct 16, 2013 |
This has been on my reading list for quite some time. Nevil Shute will always be a favourite author ever since I read [b:On the Beach|38180|On the Beach|Nevil Shute|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327943327s/38180.jpg|963772] many years ago.

The novel was engaging, the characters well written, the story very believable. The book reminded me of [a:Bryce Courtenay|63|Bryce Courtenay|http://photo.goodreads.com/authors/1277671069p2/63.jpg]'s books (such as [b:The Story Of Danny Dunn|7210705|The Story Of Danny Dunn|Bryce Courtenay|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327992087s/7210705.jpg|7949597], a book which I did not like), or I should say I think Bryce Courtenay's style mimics this author. Nevil Shute does it better though, his characters are believable and he doesn't make me cry at the end of his books (okay well he does sometimes..). ( )
  alsocass | Oct 12, 2013 |
A lovely, lovely story, of a remarkable woman. Very well written, and told. The kind of story that leaves you feeling a little empty when it's finished. ( )
  jvgravy | Sep 16, 2013 |
This remains one of Nevil Shute’s best-known books and it featured in the BBC’s “Big Read” top 100 a few years ago.
The earlier part of the book is the section that most readers remember, the trek through wartime Malaya of Jean Paget and her companions. Based on a true story this ordeal is enforced by Japanese Officers who have no camps for women and no interest in providing one.

When the group are helped by Australian soldier Joe Harman the focus in the novel starts to shift towards the relationship between Jean and Joe. She thinks that he is dead but they are reunited in Australia and the book changes direction as the narrative follows their lives in the Outback.

Shute was an aeronautical Engineer and something of the methodical, measured nature of that work seeps into his novelist’s craft, resulting in an understated and practical style. This irks some readers, but I find that the poignancy is enhanced by the sober quality of the writing. His description of how frequent deaths affect the women and children in Malaya ring true – “ …they had all grown hardened to the fact of death. Grief and Mourning had ceased to trouble them; death was a reality to be avoided and fought, but when it came- well it was just one of those things.”

He frequently writes about ordinary people caught up in extra-ordinary situations and many of his stories are set during the Second World War.
Here he tells of the aftermath of war, of two people who undergo great ordeals, but survive with their spirits intact. It is an optimistic book, it’s theme that of building and re-building, of making something fresh out of ruins. Alongside the love story of the English girl and the Australian stockman there is the inspiring story of reviving a community, and creating a space in which that community can thrive.

The film based on the book used only the wartime story, and did the book a disservice, because important as this opening section is, it shows only one aspect of the heroic endeavour of a memorable heroine.
Only in the last few chapters does the story falter a little as Jean becomes involved in an outback incident and the novel loses a little momentum.
I question whether the framing device of the solicitor’s narration is really needed as it does sometimes distance the reader from the story, and also has the effect of slowing down the start and our introduction to Jean Paget. However this is a minor flaw in an inspiring tale.
1 vote Maura49 | Sep 15, 2013 |
### Review

Entertaining. . . . Dramatic. . . . Shute is a natural and effective story-teller.” —_The New York Times_

“A ripping tale of budding romance and grace under pressure.” —_The Times _(London)

"A harrowing, exciting, and in the end very satisfying war romance." —_Harper's

### Product Description

Nevil Shute’s most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, follows its enterprising heroine from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.

Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. But it turns out that they have a gift for her as well: the news that the young Australian soldier, Joe Harmon, who had risked his life to help the women, had miraculously survived. Jean’s search for Joe leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals. ( )
  Hans.Michel | Sep 13, 2013 |
One of my favorite books
  shazjhb | Sep 9, 2013 |
I didn't really get on with this book. I found the first part fairly interesting once I'd got over the rather boring introduction, but it was written like a journal (we then went to this town, so-and-so died on the way and was buried by the road). The second half didn't really interest me much at all.

I also found the method of telling the story through a third party felt clumsy and didn't really work. I don't know why the author chose to write the book like this, when a simpler first-person account would have worked better. ( )
  Pondlife | Jul 10, 2013 |
I loved the first half of this and couldn't put it down. The second half was just okay.
I thought it was weird that the author could recognize that Malaysians are humans (they are sometimes even portrayed as actual people with different personalities), but not indigenous Australians? Like, he would literally say something like, "there were two girls working there, and one lubra" (which is apparently an old and offensive word for an Aboriginal woman), as if she didn't count as a person. ( )
  JenneB | Apr 2, 2013 |
While the movies concentrated on the war atrocities I found the enterprising spirit of Jean Paget the real core of the book. ( )
  Condorena | Apr 2, 2013 |
Initially, I was totally captivated by this story of Jean Padgett, a young English woman working in Malaya who became a Japanese prisoner of war. The hardships that the women and children endured during their trek to one nonexistent prison camp after another and the alternating kindness and inhumanity of their captors kept me reading (well, listening; this was an audiobook) at a rapid pace. Under such an unlikely circumstances, one wouldn't expect to fall in love, but we do sense that it is happening to Jean when she means a resourceful Australian named Joe Harmon. But the war intervenes . . .

The novel opens with the narrator, a solicitor, tracking down Jean to tell her that she has just come into an inheritance, and it is to Noah that Jean tells her story. After hearing all she endured, he could hardly be more surprised when Jean tells him her plans for the money: to return to Malaya.

I won't spoil the book by telling what happens next, but there are quite a few surprises in store. I have to admit that the last third of the novel--the part that reflects the title--was somewhat less interesting to me. Still, this is one of those books whose title was familiar but about which I knew nothing, and overall, it was worthwhile. ( )
2 vote Cariola | Mar 26, 2012 |
Jean Paget is an ordinary English young woman who heads off to Malaya to take an office typist job, but has no interest in life there outside of her closed world of English expatriates. But when the Japanese invade, she finds herself part of a group of women and children prisoners of war forced to walk the island searching for refuge. This experience brings out the strength of character and leadership qualities that have been dormant inside her. She leads the ragtag group to a safe haven to wait out the war and is ultimately inspired to use an unexpected inheritance to make her world better -- and she also falls in love.

One of the best things about this book is the character of Jean Paget. Although she is modest almost to a fault and would certainly never have called herself a feminist, she is a feminist heroine in that she is the one with the vision to change her world and the ability to accomplish her goals. None of the male characters come close to her. Reading about the way she changes the tiny outback town where she lives with her husband Joe, I was reminded of economists who have touted the importance of microcredit and female-owned businesses in helping lift villages out of poverty in Africa.

For all the dramatic events described within -- war, torture, lovers separated by death and distance and then reunited -- the writing style is fairly dry and not much concerned with the characters' emotions. Clearly, to Shute, the really interesting stuff was the parts about living in the outback and setting up a new business. If you're looking for passion, look elsewhere. But I found Jean's story involving enough to carry me through, and the details about wartime experiences and outback life certainly seem authentic.

It should be said that this book is marred by racist and sexist attitudes that are probably accurate for the time but made me wince more than once. It's more thoughtless than vicious, but still uncomfortable for a modern reader. ( )
1 vote sophroniaborgia | Mar 10, 2012 |
A very, very long time ago, I was a teenage boy. At that time, I read Shute’s masterpiece, On the Beach, and loved it’s melancholy and dead-end conclusion. I was interested then in reading Alice and finding out how it compared and how I’d react to his writing after so long.

Well this is a wholly different book from On the Beach. For , a start, it’s a positive novel which focusses on the life of one main character, the remarkable Jean Paget. That Jean’s early experiences are based on a woman in real life is amazing too. Shute met someone who really had spent three years of the war walking non-stop from one Japanese officer to another… and not only survived but thrived. And Jean goes on from her war experiences to use an inheritance she receives with astonishing vision and acumen.

While I liked the character of Jean a lot, I found the framework that Shute used for the narration of the novel somewhat cumbersome. The novel is told by one of the trustees of her inheritance, an aged lawyer who takes a slightly more personal interest, shall we say, in Jean’s affairs as the novel goes on. What I found irritating about this was that when Jean was halfway around the world, he was narrating detailed conversations and feelings etc. This just didn’t work for me. It was far too forced. However, although the narrators perspective is warped in my opinion, it’s a device that works to convey the issues that arise from aging, loneliness and love and I did appreciate that.

The story basically falls into three parts. There’s Jean’s wartime experiences which could probably have been a novel itself. This then leads up to her heading off to Australia and the town like Alice that she attempts to build. There’s a final sub-plot towards the end which I wont spoil for you.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Shute’s purpose was in writing the novel. If it was to show the indefatigable spirit of a person, he has succeeded. But in order to do this, he links together three quite different extreme experiences. That someone would have three such experiences is, I found, a tad implausible. But, that aside, there is a story to catch your attention there and characters that make you care. ( )
  arukiyomi | Nov 27, 2011 |
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