Vintage reads: A Town Like Alice

Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014

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A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

I sold two copies of this novel one day to a woman who told me that she and a friend were leaving the next day to go to Darwin.

They were both nurses and had jobs there. Years ago she had seen the TV series of this book and resolved then and there to go and experience Australia's outback. 

Humbly she said it took a while, but she was determined to go. Go, them! 

Nevil Shute has written a lot of novels. Starting in 1920, he had penned 15 out of 24 by the time he got to A Town Like Alice in 1950.

I read this particularly for this column and it's achieved precisely its purpose, in that I have found a new author  I will continue to read.The novel is divided into two parts, the first being wartime Malaya.

The heroine, Jean Paget, is captured by the Japanese with a group of women and children. The group numbering about 70 are marched to various destinations under the misapprehension that they are on their way to a prisoner of war camp.

It gradually becomes apparent that there is no such camp and that the Japanese are not sure what to do with them all. So they just keep walking.

Not surprisingly, many of them die along the way and, by the end, the group numbers about 30.  This is based on a true story of a group of Dutch women in Indonesia during the war.

Jean spent some years in Malaya previously and could speak the language. Furthermore, she quickly realised that dressing as the locals did and adopting some of their customs helped to keep them healthy and consequently alive.

This was quite revolutionary at the time and ''some of the English residents were quite upset when they heard that she'd gone off in native dress old school tie, and letting down the side, and all that sort of thing''.

During this period, Jean meets Joe Harman, an Australian who is also a prisoner of war and who drives a truck delivering supplies to the Burma Railway.

He befriends Jean and steals some desperately needed medicines and supplies for them all. Predictably, Joe faces the consequences of his actions at the hands of the Japanese.

The second half of the book is set in Australia where Jean and Joe reunite and look to forge a life together in the outback. This is no place for an Englishwoman.

Mostly at Jean's instigation they create businesses and opportunities to enhance Joe's hometown so it's more like ''a town like Alice'' and hence a place that Jean could live contentedly.Nevil Shute is an assured writer with a precise style.

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It's a pleasure to journey with such a gentlemanly author.

- Waikato Times


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