22 August 2014
A TOWN LIKE ALICE by Nevil Shute
My choice of material for Book Talk is usually conditioned by whatever is topical (A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING) or something that comes by kind recommendation (THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS). More recently I’ve grown tired of contemporary literature and its attempt to be controversial in the desire to break new ground and I’ve hankered for something more traditional. Last week I settled on BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, a book I had never previously read but whose reputation has lasted the years. I wasn’t disappointed. Today I have resorted to pure sentiment as I want to share an old favourite with you, A TOWN LIKE ALICE.
When I say old I am probably referring to the book itself rather than my familiarity with it. It languished on my bookshelf for many years and I kept telling myself I must read it but it wasn’t until I needed something for my trip to Bruges last May that I finally got round to it. We often hear it said of a book ‘I couldn’t put it down’ and in my case this was literally the truth. When my wife and I went to bed at night in our hotel, we would read for a while before turning in – but that invariably came too soon for me and I felt compelled to continue although it meant having to retreat to the loo where I could keep a light on. I finished the book in days and it had a profound effect on me.
Why? Was it because it was written in some startling kind of prose? No. Did it have some revolutionary kind of form? No. What was it then that made this book so special? What moved me was the story, plain and simple, although actually, it’s two stories, the first taking place in Malaya during the war, the second in Australia afterwards. Here’s a brief summary.
It is the story of how Jean Paget, a young English girl, became the leader and the mainstay of a party of British women and children, prisoners of the Japanese, in a nightmare trek through Malaya. Stricken by illness and utter exhaustion many of them died – those who survived owed their lives to Jean’s fortitude and strength of character. It tells too how she came to meet again the young Australian who had helped them – whose ghastly torture they had been forced to watch. How she starts a new life in the wilds of Northern Queensland becoming the driving force behind the transformation of a near derelict collection of houses into a thriving town like Alice Springs.
You will gather from this that Jean Paget is a formidable woman and one you will not easily forget. Her experiences in Malaya are based on a true but little-known incident in the war against Japan although her name has obviously been changed. And yet again (how often do I find this?) her story is told in the simplest of lucid prose. In fact, I would suggest that the story is so powerful in its own right that to try and disguise it with any ‘pretty’ writing would actually detract from its impact. Shute avoids this and allows us to focus on what is really important here.
This is a richly human tale of courage, enterprise and love – in war and in the aftermath of war. If you don’t cry at some point during this novel – or at the very least fight the lump in your throat back down – then all I can say is you have precious little in the way of soul. They don’t come much better than this.