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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 outbackJean 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 Jean's travels 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

10 thoughts on “A Town Like Alice

  1. says:

    ”I suppose it is because I have lived rather a restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes I have sat here day after day this winter sleeping a good deal in my chair hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf country dreaming of the blazing sunshine of poddy dodging and black stockmen of Cairns and of Green Island Of a girl that I met forty years too late and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again that holds so much of my affection” There was a 1981 mini series starring Bryan Brown and Helen MorseOur narrator is a solicitor by the name of Noel Strachan who is ”as solid as the Bank of England and as sticky as treacle” He becomes involved with an estate that seems to be a straightforward affair but soon it evolves into his most all consuming case It involves a woman named Jean Paget to him of a girl but as we learn her story we find out just how much of a woman she really is Paget’s story is based on true events This story is set in Malaya but the real story is set in Sumatra The women and children taken by the Japanese during the war are Dutch not British and Nevil Shute gets many things wrong Some of that is translation problems and some of those are changes necessary to tell the story he wants to tell The Japanese take all foreign nationals in Malaya prisoner They separate the men from the women haul the men off to camps and don’t have a clue what to with the women and childrenSo they march them in what turns out to be random directions towards mythical camps for women and children that never materialize With every brutal mile their ranks are thinned and the youngest woman among them becomes their de facto leader Jean Paget She befriends a truck driver from the Australian outback Jim Harman who steals much needed supplies at great risk Eventually he is caught ”’I stole those mucking chickens and I gave them to her So what?’ said JoeThe ’So what?’ turns out to be a very big deal indeed ”’They crucified him’ she said uietly ‘They took us down to Kuantan and they nailed his hands to a tree and beat him to death They kept us there and made us look on while they did it’”This is a story that Paget tells to Noel Strachan and he shares the story with us Over the course of the novel she continues to write to him about her life Despite the age difference and the impracticality of a relationship it is easy to see that Strachan has fallen in love with Jean Paget and as it turned out so did Joe Harman Joe Harman is based on a real man by the name of Herbert James ‘Ringer’ Edwards He was every inch the man that Shute describes in his novel Look at that jaunty angle to his hatIn this edition there is a wonderful afterword by Jenny Colgan She makes the case that writers craftsmen and craftswomen like Nevil Shute Bernard Malamud Elizabeth Taylor Robertson Davies are largely forgotten by the reading community today Interestingly enough I have several books by all these writers in my personal library I am the consummate pursuer of writers exactly like Shute who have been relegated to the past left for dead but who are in need of a resurrection with a new generation of readers He has certainly left his mark on me I think about Shute’s book On the Beach at least once a week It is one of my favorite post apocalyptic books I have a feeling I will be similarly haunted by A Town Like Alice Nevil Shute Norway is his full name To keep his engineering life and his writing life separated he existed under Norway in one and Shute in the other He became caught up in the disastrous airship craze between the world wars and he is brought to life so vividly by David Dennington in his historical novel The Airshipmen Shute’s writing style is crisp concise and straightforward There is romance but he presents it in such a practical fashion that the plot never bogs down in the melodrama of star crossed lovers ”But Shute was a storytelling craftsman to his bones; an aeronautics obsessive there are very few authors who are also excellent engineers He never constructs a lazy or shoddy sentence any than he’d have let the wings fall off one of his aeroplanes”After receiving her legacy Jean ends up in the outback of Australia being exactly the can do woman she was in Malaya She wants to build the sparse few buildings of Willstown into the next Alice Springs I find this part of the story so inspiring She is such an natural entrepreneur She asks the right uestions What do people need? What do people want that they don’t even know they want it yet? What must we do to make each venture profitable? How does she keep the young women from running off to the big cities? No young women means there are no young men In many ways she is like Bugsy Siegel who envisioned casinos in the desert She wants to build A Town Like Alice She uses her legacy to build something There is one major plot twist which is dangled so masterfully by Shute but the reveal is not a grand fireworks affair That just isn’t Shute’s style He brings it in subtly as if to sayof course this is what really happened Poor Noel Strachan meets the girl of his dreams forty years too late but fate does at least let him meet her You too can meet Jean Paget and Joe Harman and get to know what poddy dodging means and ringers but importantly if you love a good story as well crafted as the airplanes you trust your life to then you should be reading Nevil Shute His books should not be forgotten Blow the dust off them in your local library and paperback exchanges and let his stories live in your mind as they do in mine If you wish to see of my most recent book and movie reviews visithttpwwwjeffreykeetencomI also have a Facebook blogger page at

  2. says:

    There are books we can't be entirely rational about For good or bad they push our personal buttons and we adore or detest them beyond their own merits A Town Like Alice is one of those books I love beyond reason It contains courage determination when the odds are against you and taking action to change others' lives and the world around you for the better It has some bittersweet moments as well as a little bit of romanceNevil Shute based this 1950 novel on a WWII story he had heard about Dutch women and children who were Japanese prisoners of war who were marched around Sumatra from place to place because the Japanese had no prison camp to put them in many of them dying along the way As it turns out he misunderstood the story they didn't actually have to walk but were transported around the country He used this as the basis for this story of Jean Paget a young Englishwoman who becomes the leader of a group of women and children who are forced to walk from town to town in Japanese occupied Malaya now Malaysia in terrible circumstances Along the way they meet a kind Australian POW Joe Harman a young man who helps them with food and other necessities and uickly becomes a friend to Jean But Jean and Joe run into trouble when Joe steals some black Leghorn chickens for the underfed group What happens then and after makes for a fascinating story Malaysian villageAfter the war Jean inherits some money and becomes friends with Noel Strachan the elderly English solicitor who is her trustee Noel is the narrator for most of the novel and sometimes his voice gets a little dry and tedious in relating tangential details kind of befitting an aging lawyer I can say that D At the same time he has a certain old fashioned charm and wry humor Noel watches Jean fall in love with a distinct feeling of regret since her new life will take her away from England but he continues to help her as she begins to transform the Australian outback town where she has chosen to live ueensland AustraliaAs he decides to travel to visit Jean to help her with some legal matters one of his law partners is concerned for his healthI only wish you hadn't got to put so much of your energy into this After all it's a fairly trivial affairI can't agree with that I said I'm beginning to think that this thing is the most important business that I ever handled in my lifeI've read this book three or four times over the years I noticed much this time how Noel's narration sometimes gets repetitive and tedious I wish I had a dollar for every time a character stared at someone or said Oh my word I don't know if Nevil Shute deliberately wrote it that way or if that's just his style of writing But then there's a wonderful scene or a lovely turn of phrase and I fall in love with this book all over againIn the half light he turned as she came out of the hut and he was back in the Malay scene of six years ago She was barefooted and her hair hung down in a long plait as it had been in Malaya She was no longer the strange English girl with money; she was Mrs Boong again the Mrs Boong he had remembered all those yearsIt's old fashioned in many ways but it still moves and inspires me And for that reason despite its occasional weaknesses it's staying at the full five starsFebruary 2015 rereadbuddy read with HanaPrevious reviewThis is one of my all time favorite books It consists of two uite different halves with the first half relating the travails of Jean Paget and a group of English women in Malaya during WWII and the second half about Jean's romance with an Australian man she had met briefly during her travels in Malaya and her efforts to turn his Australian town into a decent place for women and families to live I may be in the minority of liking the second half better than the first not just for the romance which is nice but doesn't take up a lot of space in the book but for the way in which the main character takes action to change her town It's inspiring and enjoyable reading even if rather deliberately paced at times Highly recommended

  3. says:

    My first read by this author and it definitely won't be my last Felt like this was two stories held together by the indefatiable Jean Paget she certainly is a wonderful well written character Loved out narrator Noel the older gentlemanly London soliciter who administers the estate left to Jean from an uncle she little remembers There are no gimmicks here just some good old fashioned story telling with the added bonus of one learning uite a bit about Malaya though the events here were actually perpetuated in Sumatra and about Australia and the ghost towns left empty after the gold Rush The author explains this and also that Jean's character was created to honor the very real woman who went through what Jean does after the Japanese invasion It is no wonder then that I felt this part of the book was written the bestueensland Australia and the stations at Wells town is the setting for the second half connected of course by Jean and a person she meets in Malaya He will be the reason she travels to Australia where she will make the most of her inheritance by improving the town she will soon call home I love her character she never gives up plans and changes thing not to her liking and at a time when not many women had the ways nor means to do these things I enjoyed this story immensely and loved the feelings ng I got while reading this story especially the second half where Jean really comes into her own Plenty of good stuff here and look forward to reading others by this author

  4. says:

    I couldn't tell you why I have resisted reading A Town Like Alice for so many years But I did Perhaps it is for the best whatever time it is we chose to land a particular book in our handsWhen I began to read Shute's book I uickly fell into it Noel Strachan is perhaps one of the most charming narrators I've encountered Shute's use of the aging British Solicitor to unveil the story of Jean Paget drew me into the tale It was a simple enough matter Strachan was hired to write the will and administer the estate of Mr McFadden It is the type of case that routinely crosses a lawyer's desk The will was uite straight forward and uite traditional Upon McFadden's death his estate was to go to his sister as a life estate Upon her demise the estate was to devolve to her son Should he predecease McFadden the estate would go to our protagonist Jean PagetMcFadden was easily what we would term a chauvinist today Should Jean Paget be his heir his estate was to be held in trust for her until the age of thirty five McFadden didn't believe young women had a head for handling moneyHowever war has a way of causing the least favored beuests in wills to often be made In this case World War Two left McFadden's estate to his least favored heir It was up to Strachan to sort things out and carry out his client's last wishesOf course Jean Paget was never the woman McFadden believed his niece to be She survived a death march of non combatant women and children following the Japanese invasion of Malaya Her brother did not survive imprisonment in a prisoner of war campShute's portrayal of Jean and her fellow English women and their children is a tribute to the courage and endurance of those individuals who have come to be called the collateral damage of war The Japanese have no use for these women and children Nor do they want to waste precious resources on keeping them alive when there is the Imperial Army to feedInto this mix Shute throws in a plucky Australian Joe conscripted by the Japanese to drive trucks of material for them Of course Joe and Jean meet He admires this young woman whom he believes to be married On than one occasion Joe manages to smuggle food medicines and soaps to the wandering band of women and children However war rarely leaves possible lovers in a situation that allows a relationship to blossom Joe and Jean are separated under circumstances which this reviewer will not revealAs a bit of an aside I found Shute's depiction of Japanese troops and their behavior toward the British women and children one of the most sensitive and humane portrayals in literature and history Interestingly it is the line soldier who exhibits the greatest humanity to their charges It is the Imperial Officer who turns a blind eye to the plight of non combatants It would be tempting to say that A Town Like Alice is a sentimental romance and leave it at that However it goes beyond those limits in a depiction of courage and survival while acting selflessly and a life lived happily ever after I'm told that happens some times I wouldn't attempt to deny that degree of happiness to those that find it nor would I sneer at it because I hadn't necessarily found itI will admit at this juncture that I am unabashedly a romantic Nevil Shute wrote a story which enchanted me with its charm courage and passion that was truly unbridled only after a wedding ring was slipped onto a finger and a marriage meant to last a lifetime Old fashioned you say?Too right It's a right crook affair By all means be welcome to those sentiments if you have succumbed to the cynicism of our supposedly modern worldThere is nothing in this book to dislike unless you simply refuse to believe in the possibility of happy endings They do happen you knowOh there's a bit of Neal Strachan in me I am an aging lawyer as he was Jean Paget is one of those women capable of enchanting many a man with her mind her intellect her toughness and her capacity to love not only a man but life and all it encompassesToo right Mr Shute Too right

  5. says:

    I wanted to read this book for such a very long time I don't know why But finally it was done and the tick on the Bucket List is happily added The story is based on a true story and therefore can be expected to be treated with utmost respect Fact and fiction is entwined here in such a way that the distinction between tale and truth becomes impossible However the impact of the story is very real and very striking During WWII a group of English women were captured by the Japanese in the vicinity of Padang and forced to wander around in Sumatra for two and a half years In the real story eighty women and children formed the initial group and less than thirty survived The main character in this book was one of them In the novel however the number of women who started out was 32 and end with something like 16Malaysia instead of Sumatra is the focal country in this story by the author's own admission and choice The women and children obviously suffered an unimaginable ordeal which could only be stressed in a novel like this written by a master storyteller There was no prisoner camps for them set up and the Japanese did not want to take responsibility for them Their solution was to send them all over the place from town to town on foot covering hundreds of miles hoping to unofficially terminate their lives through exhaustion and starvation It worked The Japanese military leaders almost succeeded Eventually at the end of the war the remaining members of the group were repatriated Six years after the war our protagonist Miss Jean Paget the young unmarried leader of the group decided to return to the Malaysian village who took care of them for three years and repay them for their kindness And then she had to find the Australian soldier who risked his life for them She wanted to find closure but also give back in her own wayIt is a shocking story Heart breaking with out a doubt However a love story was waiting in the wings An amazing tale This is not a drama in the true sense of the word I got the impression that the author wanted to honor a friend's life story by turning it into a novel In comparison with the novels Garden of Evening Mist' as well as The Gift of Rain authored by Tan Twang Eng as well as numerous others this tale softened the experiences of the prisoners considerably Nevil Shute portrays the ground level Japanese troops as humane towards these wandering innocent victims of the war It is probably one of the outstanding features in the tale The geographical and historical detail in the book are impressive In the end it becomes the story of a town being born when one woman explores the possibilities embedded in a remote Australian community The story celebrates courage and endurance integrity and strength of character The narrator is her solicitor Neal Strachan who goes to great lengths to defend his client's courage and self confidence in a totally chauvinistic environment The book was originally published in 1950 It must have stirred a few established social s and values at the time I'm not sure where fact and fiction should split up It doesn't really matter either The author also spent a great part of the second half of the tale turning it into a travel journal Well sort of The charm and uniueness of the Australian outback as well as the beauty of Malaysia is presented in fascinating detail This was a good read in so many many ways

  6. says:

    Jean Paget was part of a group of women and children captured by the Japanese at the beginning of the invasion of Malaya The men were sent to camps while their captors didn’t know what to do with the women and children And so began the horrific march across Malaya from one place to the next over miles and miles of dense jungle During the walk several of their party died but Jean’s role as leader went well as she was the only person able to speak the local language When the diminished group came across Australian prisoners of war Joe Harman from northern Australia did his best to help the group He was caught and brutally punishedAfter the war and repatriated to England Jean’s lifestyle was a sedentary one But after considerable time she learned something contrary to her beliefs and so headed for Australia in search of Joe; she needed to know if he was alright Would she find him? Joe had spoken fondly of Alice Springs – could she find him in a town like Alice? A Town Like Alice by Aussie author Nevil Shute is an exceptional tale Based on the true story of Dutch women and children captured by the Japanese in Sumatra Shute met the strong courageous woman who led the group through the jungle and wanted to honour her with this story Hence Jean Paget was born Originally published in 1950 A Town Like Alice is a classic I highly recommend

  7. says:

    Nevil Shute's sweeping novel sees privileged Englishwoman Jean Paget upended from her expat life in colonial Malaya by the invading Japanese in WWIIPaget somehow survives the brutality of an enforced death march through a jungle peninsula and eschews the home comforts of post war England for altruistic work in far flung climes Malaya and the Australian outbackThis is a compelling read despite it seeming a bit dated now and Shute can be commended for creating a modern ballsy female character in a time of authorial chauvinism

  8. says:

    A Town Like Alice reminds me so much of my favorite book Mrs Mike Both catalog the difficulties and triumphs of living in remote areas Both are historical Both have a strong and engaging female protagonist who are in love with a man responsibly tied to a piece of land Neither are fluffy Harleuins but make that pit in the bottom of your stomach churn with romanceIn short I loved it A Town Like Alice follows Jean Paget a Scottish woman who was raised by her parents in Malay now known as Malaysia returns to work there as an adult and ultimately finds herself trapped there as a Prisoner of War when the Japanese invade the Island during World War IIHer captivity is accurately described as horrible with starvation and long marches from town to town killing many women and children But it also shows that uniue ability of women to nurture even in the most degrading situations When she meets Joe Harman an Australian ringger cowboy and fellow POW he tells Jean about his home and work near Alice Springs a bonza town in the heart of the Outback The two extremely lonely and isolated characters become friends Eventually when Joe steals five chickens to feed the sick and hungry women and children Jean is interrogated and punished until Joe confesses and is later crucified by a cruel Japanese leaderThe story's narration is directed by an elderly British attorney Noel Strachan who is put in charge of a trust Jean's uncle leaves her Even with the narration in his control most of the story is told through Jean sharing her memories to Noel Eventually I found Noel's involvement and third party perspective very satisfying mostly because it allowed the author to cover a greater amount of time without seeming overly jumpyThe book was written in 1950 and feels like it at times The attitudes of segregation and thoughtless caricatures of minorities creates feelings of discomfort and embarrassmentHowever it's not done with malice and the story isn't about racial barriers at all so I didn't find it offensive If anything it allows a glimpse into an unapologetic view that most white people probably had at the time which is actually an interesting glimpse on its ownI appreciated this book for its less freuently told story of female prisoners of war and for its celebration of the human spirit

  9. says:

    This novel had been lying about my house in India for a long time an old copy somebody abandoned I couldn't even recognise the name written on the cover Old houses gather books like they do other things moth eaten clothes faded photographs and chipped chinaware This vacation it kept on intruding itself into my consciousness so I said What the hell and finally decided to read itThe book pulled me into it at the beginning I liked the roundabout way Shute approached the story of Jean Paget through her uncle's will and his solicitor Noel Strachan who is also the story's narrator the legalese and leisurely pace of the story was so very British Then we are suddenly plunged into war torn Malaya and the personal heroism of Jean and her Australian admirer Joe Harman extremely gripping stuffBud sadly for me after that the novel began to flag it became a sort of travelogue about the Australian outback mixed up with and instruction booklet on How to Set Up Business in Rural Australia I became so bored that I only skimmed the last thirdStill I give it two stars for the gripping first half and the sympathetic portrayal of Malays and even the Japanese without a hint of racism a relative rarity for a book first published in 1950

  10. says:

    The author Nevil Shute left Britain and migrated to Australia because he believed that the advent of the Welfare State would cause people to go softview spoiler because obviously life should be hard and characterised by arbitrary harshness towards one another that's what toughens people up so they can steal chickens from the Japanese hide spoiler