A Town Like Alice is a classic, well-received when it was published in 1950. Neville Shute created a one-of-a-kind novel that spanned decades and continents.
it did — just not as I had expected. It is a product of its time, and
while parts of it transcend time, others are stuck firmly in it.
A Town Like Alice
begins in the early years of the twentieth century. The elderly
Scotsman Mr. Mcfadden asks his solicitor to help him execute his last
will and testament to give his money and possessions to his only living
relatives upon his death: first, to his married sister; then, if she
pre-deceases him, his nephew upon his majority at 21 — and, if fate is
unkind, his niece, whose legacy will be tended by the solicitors until
she turns 35 (because young, unmarried women cannot manage that much
money without protection from a solicitor or a husband).
the solicitor, thinks nothing of it again until after World War II,
upon the death of the client. Noel must locate his next-of-kin — who,
due to age and the global war, it turns out to be Jean Paget, his niece
(and last in line for the uncle's fortune). The legacy is enough to
allow her to live comfortably without working at a job, which Jean
Her first decision: build a well in a small Malayan town.
and her family had lived in Malaya for most of Jean's formative years
and all had become fluent in the native language and culture. Jean and
her brother had returned to Malaya before the war, and neither were
unscarred when the Japanese invaded and occupied the island. Jean was
among a group of British women who were taken prisoner by the Japanese
and forced to walk to their camp — which never materialized, so they
walked between prison camps all over the country for more than a year.
During this time, Jean met an Australian prisoner who risked everything
to take care of her and her kinswomen (and the children who walked with
them). When the Australian is caught in his thievery, Jean's last image
of him haunts her for years, and makes her reluctant to speak of her
experiences as a prisoner. However, she and her fellow prisoners soon
found a home: a small village where they farmed until the war was over
and they were released. It was in this village Jean intended to build
Upon returning to the village, she discovers
one can go home again — especially if it's the home of the heart. The
East calls her, and she follows that call.
The book has three sections: during the War, after the War, and what happens after Jean constructs "a gift by women, for women."
the book seemed tedious in some places. Shute was an aeronautical
engineer who is in love with detail, and every detail is affectionately
reviewed in minutiae. I can only handle Jean "filing away information"
for future use a few times before I wish to remind the author that her
noticing it is enough for readers to get the hint that it's an important
detail. It's worth it in the end, but it's not always easy to remember
Secondly, the book is a product of its time. The
racial slurs are used casually and the sexism is blatant. Jean's
brother would have received unfettered control of the principle by the
time he was 21, but Jean has to wait until she's 35 because she's a
woman? Please. The fact that the women POWs were able to come up with a
solution where the men could not is understated, and the irony that a
woman who can affect that much change and still not be in charge of her
own legacy is absurd. Also understated is the fact that the most
"developed" towns are the ones that kill more women than the
less-developed and spoiled. The references to the primitive nature of
the native dwellers was insulting. Don't even start me on the racism of
the Australian Outback of the 1940s (which continues to this day), even
if it's expressed a little differently than looking into their seamed,
dark skin and making sure they have their own ice cream parlor.
know, maybe the "understated" parts of the story just didn't warrant
the same attention for the author as the "better" stuff. He highlighted
the things he knew or that fascinated him, so I will have to guess that
smart women and indigenous people didn't.
In the end,
it was a fantastic snapshot of life in the early part of the last
century. I was surprised that the afterward noted the storyline of the
English women marching around Malaya was fiction — because it was Dutch
women in Sumatra who suffered that terrible fate, and the author took
the story from a woman who survived it. The language and characters
seemed authentic and the story was rather empowering for women, in the
end, I think. Plus, the character of Noel was sweet and charming in his
Speaking of characters: if Jean started one more successful business, I was
going to choke her. But I liked her: very innovative and brave. Then
again, if you lived through a POW camp in Asia, I bet starting your own
shoe production company in the middle of the Australian Outback would be
easy. And Joe: my heart just broke when he went to England looking for
Jean and she wasn't there. Apparently Bryan Brown played him in a 1981
TV adaptation of the book, and I can see that.
recommend the book, if you can see past its flaws. If you can't, stop
reading immediately because they will continue to be insurmountable.
What did you think: outdated or a reminder of the strength of the human spirit?