A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice cover

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute was first published in 1950 and I don’t remember ever not knowing about it, such is its fame, but I hadn’t ever really been drawn to actually read it until Lisa @ TBR 313 mentioned it was her favourite. Even then, when I flicked through the old 1956 hardback copy that I managed to buy at a second-hand book-shop, I had misgivings when I saw the Japanese names. Possibly that was why I had avoided it, having had a few chaps in my extended family who had been prisoners of the Japanese during the war. Anyway, it turned out to be a page-turner that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Jean Paget had gone out to Malaya to work before the outbreak of war, she had had family links with the country and was able to speak the language. When the Japanese army so unexpectedly swept the country she had ended up being a prisoner along with the wives and children of the men who had worked out there. The men were all taken prisoner and taken off to build the infamous Burma railway.

Meanwhile the women and children weren’t wanted by anyone, they were shoved from pillar to post having to walk hundreds of miles in search of a women’s prison that didn’t exist, with many of them dying of exhaustion.

Jean’s strength of character is a life-saver for them all and when she gets back to Blighty after the war she settles down to a boring and lonely life as a shorthand typist, until she gets word that she has been left a fortune by an elderly uncle. Jean is the only survivor from her family and the lawyer appointed as a trustee of her inheritance befriends her, he helps her achieve her ambition of digging a well for the women of the village where she had lived and worked during the war.

When Jean discovers that an Australian soldier she had assumed had died had actually survived she sets out to find him and so begins a romance that leads to her settling in Australia’s outback and developing bit by bit a community and better way of life for the people of that remote area.

Nevil Shute was obviously very enamoured of the Australian landscape and the people who scraped a living on farms in the searing heat with practically nothing in the way of comforts. Although the way the aboriginals are portrayed is a bit uncomfortable, I’m sure he was writing an accurate picture of their life. I think perhaps things are in some ways even worse for the aboriginals nowadays.

A Town Like Alice is a great read though and I’ll probably give it five stars on Goodreads.

13 thoughts on “A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

  1. Oh, how I have loved and re-read A Town Like Alice, and how I love the works of Nevil Shute!! A Town Like Alice is so moving, striking so many chords of those who have suffered and carry on, it’s just a masterpiece, I think. Oh, oh. Guess I need to go and re-read it again!!

  2. I too have always been aware of this book but have never read it. Your review makes me realize that I was completely wrong in what I thought the book was about. I picked up another Nevil Shute somewhere but I haven’t read that either. A book you will give five stars to definitely deserves some attention.

    • Jennifer,
      I think I mainly give books four stars and I think that is because I rarely read duds nowadays because I’m reading books recommended to me by other bloggers.

  3. I really liked this book….this post reminds me to try some other books by Nevil Shute. Are there others that you would recommend?

  4. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one! It was my introduction to Nevil Shute, and it is still my favorite. I guess you’ve never seen the TV adaptation? If not I wouldn’t bother looking for it. They added a lot of (in my opinion) unnecessary drama to the story, though Bryan Brown did a nice job as Joe.

  5. One of my favourites too. Nevil Shute is always associated with my father for me. He enjoyed reading (still does) but rarely had the time when we were growing up and books in the house were rare but Nevil Shute was there; like you, Katrina, I can’t ever remember not knowing about him. The book I most remember from Shute though, is On The Beach. I read it when I was quite young and it certainly made a mark; I won’t forget that one. ‘Alice’ was more shadowy. When I read it a couple of years ago I could no longer be certain whether I’d read it before or not – which was rather nice in its way.

    • Sandra,
      That’s interesting, I just bought an old copy of On the Beach a few months ago so I’ll be reading that one soon. His books were in my family home as I was growing up too although my father was just like yours, not much time for reading. He enjoyed Alistair McLean books though.

  6. I love A Town Like Alice! I love the elderly narrator, and Jean, and the whole story. I think the only other book I’ve read by Shute is On the Beach. Also, there was a TV movie called “Crossing to Freedom” that was based on his book Pied Piper that my sisters and I watched many times when we were young. It was about a British man who is trying to get some children out of France as it is falling to Germany at the beginning of WWII. The TV movie starred Peter O’Toole.

    I just finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand which goes into the brutality of the Japanese POW camps. I’m sorry your relatives had to endure that.

    • Christy,
      I’ve just bought an ancient paperback copy of Pied Piper and I had no idea what it was about, it sounds right up my street so I’ll be reading it soon. Thanks for the info.
      I think any prisoners of the Japanese were lucky to survive but they all had problems their whole lives of course with their physical and mental health ruined – very poor eyesight and such as a result of the lack of nutrition.

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