A book set in a place you’d visit, A Town like Alice, by Neville Shute
Back in high school, I read Neville Shute’s novel On the Beach. It has haunted me ever since—literally, it haunted my dreams,—it gave me horrific apocalyptic nightmares for years. To this day, it remains on my favorites list; it was terrifying because it was so well written and realistic, which is why I adore it despite the fact that it scared the crap out of me. Due to my immense love for Shute’s work, I bought a copy of A Town like Alice years ago and promised I’d revisit Shute’s work at some point. It seemed like a great opportunity to sneak this into my reading challenge under a book that takes place somewhere I’d like to visit. I have always wanted to visit Australia, so it was very fun to take an imaginary journey there through this piece of fiction.
Important to note: Shute uses a true story as the basis for the central plotline. In real life, a group of about 80 Dutch civilian women and children living in Sumatra were taken prisoner by Japanese forces in the 1942. At a loss for what to do with these women, the Japanese forced them to walk for two years from one end of the country to the other in search of a non-existent female prison camp. Many died along the way. In later years, the validity of this account has come into question—the Shute foundation claims he was mistaken, and the women were not forced to walk, but were transported. Either way, it’s a fascinating story. In my edition, Shute leaves a note to readers that he met one of the surviving women from this group, and while he had never before based his fiction on real people, he never met someone as courageous and inspiring as this woman, so he felt compelled to (sort-of) tell her story.
Shute chooses Noel Strachan, solicitor and Trustee of our main character, to narrate the tale. Our main character is the 30 something Miss Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman recently repatriated to England after surviving the war in Malaysia as a Japanese POW. Noel describes the process of creating a trust for one of his clients, a distant relative of Jean’s, which upon the death of Jean’s mother and brother during the war leaves the trust entirely to her. Suddenly finding herself wealthy beyond her imagination, Jean must consider what to do with her future. She decides to use part of her inheritance to return to the village in Malaya where she lived out the war years in peace after a grueling two-year death march around the country. She hopes in some small way to repay the villagers for their kindness, which led to her survival, by drilling a well for them. This leads her to divulge the harrowing tale to her trustee, and he to readers as he recounts her story. This aspect of the novel alone is fascinating and would be plenty enough to sustain the novel on its own. In fact, I’ve read several reviews where readers feel this should have been the story in its entirety. But I disagree—I enjoyed the second wind of this novel just as much as the first.
After recounting her tragic war years, Jean returns to Malaysia to dig the well. While there, she receives a shock. During the war, a young Australian POW helped the party of women survive by stealing food for them. The Japanese caught and tortured him in front of the women to prove a point, and the party of surviving women believed him to be dead. Upon her return to the village, however, Jean discovers that he survived and is living in Australia. This sparks an interest within her to find this man, Joe Harman, and reconnect with him to express her gratitude and sorrow over the torture he received at her expense. In an interesting twist of fate, around the same time, Joe discovers that Jean is an unmarried woman—he had hidden his love for her, even from himself, whilst under the assumption she was married. Once he discovered she was single, he decided he needed to reconnect with her and if possible, marry her. The conclusion of the story is the resolution between these two objects of fate, and the affects their love will have upon a small, rural outpost in the Australian outpost.
The novel is beautifully written throughout and will leave you sad when you reach the end—rather like saying goodbye to an old friend. Shute manages to incorporate it all—history, love, and economics—and create a beautiful and intriguing story of the power of the human will.