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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
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A Town Like Alice (1950)

by Nevil Shute

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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 |
A friend recommended this to me. Actually, when she learned I’d never read it, she ran out of the room, returned with it, and stuffed it into my hands. A story of romance during and just after World War II although it was set in Malaya and Australia. I enjoyed seeing WWII fiction not set in Europe. And it was a very sweet story. [Jan. 2009] ( )
  maureene87 | Apr 4, 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 |
Can't go wrong with Nevil shute ( )
  brone | Oct 1, 2011 |
Noel Strachan is an elderly attorney, a widower, when a half-forgotten client dies and leaves him the trustee to a distant niece’s trust fund. Jean Paget turns out to be a shorthand typist, but not like anyone else he’s met; she enchants him completely as he learns more of her history. An enterprising girl, she took a job in Malaya and failed to escape at the beginning of World War II. She found herself in a gang of women and children being marched by Japanese guards from one place to another, looking for a women’s prison camp that didn’t exist. Her survival as the group dwindles is a triumph of adaptability. Wrapped in a sarong, tanned completely brown, someone else’s baby perched on her hip; she negotiates and cajoles and plots to keep the rest of the group alive. Later, she returns to reward the villagers who helped them and learns that the handsome Australian soldier who was fiercely punished for his efforts on their behalf had miraculously survived. As Noel doles out the funds she needs and lives vicariously through her letters, she finds new challenges and new resources of adaptability.

There are deep lows in the book, but it is never truly grim. The Japanese guards can be stern and their punishments fierce, but they are not malicious and for the most part their “confinement” is benign. The novel winds up being an interesting study of how tiny changes (putting on a sarong, hiring five girls) can lead to important changes in quality of life. The last third of the book is particularly delightful, and Strachan is a pleasant narrator. ( )
2 vote jholcomb | Aug 7, 2011 |
The story about an ordinary extraordinary woman, Jean Paget, who was held prisoner together with 30 British women and children in Malaya by the Japanese during the Second World War. As there wasn't any camp for them, the Japanese kept them walking from village to village without knowing what to do with them, provoking the death of more than half of the party due to exhaustion, bad nutrition and tropical diseases. Their luck changes when they meet an Australian prisoner named Joe Harman who stoles medicines and food for them until he is caught and flogged to death by the Japanese Captain. Or so they think.
Some years later, Jean comes into some money because she inherits her uncle's fortune and decides to go back to Malaya and do something good for the people who finally helped them and that's when she discovers that the Australian didn't die. So, she decides to go and look for him.

The story is told by a third character, who is in fact the lawyer that handled the inheritance of Jean's uncle and the trustee of the money until she turns 35 years old.

All this seems like a pretty good plot to me, but somehow, I couldn't get into the book and I thought the narrative to be dull and flat and unemotional.
Apart from that, there's always a conservative tone in the story, there's continual references to the inferiority of women and Aborigines (or "Boongs" as they call them), the obligations in marriage (I found the scene where Jean finds it normal that she's covered in bruises after a "passionate" night pretty disgusting) or the way the author talks about sex, which is absolutely outdated and embarrassing.

Some say the story was romantic but not mushy. I don't agree. The book was not romantic at all. It was completely unemotional. You kept reading about children dying and the only detailed account was about how to bury the body and the inscription that was to put in the tomb. Not for a single moment, did the writer describe his character's feelings, they seemed pretty inhuman to me.
Then, there's the love story. First of all, we only read like 5 pages when they meet so you don't get the impression that there was any attraction for each other in Malaya. Then, after the long part where you don't know if they are going to meet again or not, I couldn't help but feeling disappointment about their so long expected encounter. Jean was only worried about business and investments and Joe was a short minded guy who only talked about cattle and his station in Australia.

All in all I felt a bit cheated, because having seen the other reviews, I expected an emotional trip and I found an objective novel which tells you all about how to start a business and talks nothing about feelings or digs deep into the characters of what could have been an engrossing tale of hardship and love. ( )
1 vote Luli81 | Jul 14, 2011 |
An interesting and somewhat meandering (though still encouraging page-turning) read, the novel is loosely based on a true story from World War II and shifts from London to Malaya to the Australian Outback. Jean is a strong central character, though the narrator (Noel) has an important role to play, as well. I felt like I learned a fair bit about another side of the war and life in Australia. Also, the language/vocabulary took some getting used to and was fun to learn (e.g. "that's crook;" "bonza," etc.) Neat book for a summer read, and I'll probably check out the movie and/or miniseries at some point. ( )
  saholc | Jul 6, 2011 |
It took me ages to read this because i had it on my iPod and only picked it up and read on the bus now and then. It's nearly 2000 little iPod pages! I did enjoy it a lot, though.

It's the story of a woman, Jean Paget, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese during WWII along with a group of other women. They were marched from town to town because their captors didn't want the responsibility of them. She meets an Australian ringer during this time though she thinks he's died before the war is over. He thinks she was a married woman because she was looking after the baby of one of the other women.

Her story is told to us by a London Lawyer who had found her after discovering she was the sole heir to one of his elderly clients, a great uncle of hers. She had told him her story and then from the present forward he tells it as he knows it from letters from her. She goes back to Thailand to say thank you to the friends she made in a village that eventually took in the prisoners and then she discovers the ringer didn't die. He discovers she was never married. It looks like their paths aren't going to cross but of course you know, they do back in Australia. She proceeds to make a life for herself and contribute to building up the Outback town into "A town like Alice" (aka Alice Springs).

It's a love story in many ways, but not overly mushy and sentimental. ( )
  tvordj | Jun 24, 2011 |
This is the story of an extraordinary, ordinary woman, Jean Paget, and how she comes to create "a town like Alice" in the Australian outback. Her story is framed as the first person narrative of her English solicitor, Noel Strachan, who meets her when she comes into an inheritance for which he's the trustee. She tells him about how she led a group of English women made prisoners of war by the Japanese during World War II in Malaysia. That story of survival takes up about half the book. During that time, a young Australian POW, Joe Harman, helped save them by stealing food and medicine for them. The other half of the book brings her to Australia looking for him.

I've seen a review accuse the book of racism. Not, in my opinion, a fair charge, even if a somewhat understandable one. I think there's a difference between a book that is racist, and one that depicts racism. The book was published in 1950 and the events that take place occur from 1942 to about 1950. The language and attitudes of the characters reflect their time and place, and wouldn't be true to it if they instead reflected contemporary sensibilities. And as for the charge that the way it depicts the Japanese is particularly racist, anyone who thinks the book isn't accurate in that instance, should look up the "Bataan Death March." It wasn't just the Nazis and Soviets who committed atrocities during World War II. I admit it did give me pause later when building a ice cream parlor is discussed and plans are made to build a segregated "coloured annex" without a qualm.

It was simply a different world then, but if you can look past that, there's a bonza tale here that spans continents, a tale of entrepreneurship such as I've rarely seen in fiction, that shows how a town is built by a woman out of the same kind of vision and courage that helped her survive a war. And it's a tale of romance as well--one fulfilled and one poignantly bittersweet. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Apr 17, 2011 |
A Town Like Alice was recommended to me several times as an option for my book club. I decided that it was time to read it. I should have skipped it.

Jean Paget is a prisoner of war on the Island of Malaya along with a rag tag group of English women and children. It is there that she meets Joe Harman an Australian soldier who is crucified by the Japanese in charge because he stole chickens to give to the starving women. Upon Jean's return to England many years later; she inherits a substantial amount of money that she wants to use to improve the lives of those that helped her in Malaya. She eventually comes to know that Joe is still alive and she goes to Australia's outback to find him.

While this all sounds very romantic and exciting, I found it to be flat and boring. I felt like the story was written as if someone were completing a report on events. A love story is written with feeling and emotion and there was nothing like that here.

I have tried to motivate the other readers in the book club to finish the book so that we can engage in some conversation about it, but I fear I may be the only one who finished the book. This was a very poor recommendation; one that I won't pass on. ( )
  Quiltinfun06 | Apr 13, 2011 |
A really enjoyable read. I hated for it to be over. ( )
  GTTexas | Mar 14, 2011 |
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