I’ve probably seen the movie version of A Town Like Alice at least ten times. It was one of those movies my mom would put on during a rainy Saturday afternoon, like Anne of Green Gables or the six-hour version of Pride and Prejudice. She liked to watch these shows, and we liked watching them with her, sometimes. We’d often catch parts of them, in between piano practice and playing with Barbies.
However, I had never read A Town Like Alice (1950) by Nevil Shute until a few weeks ago. I wanted to know where the movie had come from, as books are usually better than movies, and I had forgotten much of the plot. The book was a delightful read, and I’d suggest it as a perfect summer beach read if you are so inclined. It also happens to be number 96 on the BBC book list, which I am trying to read all of but haven’t visited for a while.
The story is about Miss Jean Paget, from England, but who finds herself among the English women in Malaya when World War II breaks out. The group is captured by the Japanese and forced to march all over the country. Wherever the women and their children go, the Japanese commander in charge turns them away and gives them new marching orders. This is the part of the story I remembered from the movie.
Jean ends up becoming a leader of the group, in which many women and children die of disease and exhaustion. She finally convinces a village to take the group in, with the permission of the Japanese, to work in the rice paddies. Her ability to broker this deal and her bravery becomes legend. She uses a religious scripture to convince the village chief to accept her deal. “Men’s souls are naturally inclined to covetousness; but if ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do” (p. 60).
Before they settle in this village, they meet up with two Australians captured by the Japanese. One of them, Joe Harman, takes a liking to Jean (although he believes she is a married woman; she isn’t) and steals some chickens for her and the group. He is caught and literally crucified.
Jean returns to England, where the narrator actually begins. He is an older gentleman who is her solicitor, for she has inherited money from a long lost uncle. She confides in the solicitor, and tells him her story, even the part about Joe Harman being killed on a cross. She then uses her money to return to the village where she worked in the rice paddies to dig a well and build the women a wash house. While there, she learns that Joe Harman did not, in fact, die. She heads to Australia to find him.
Meanwhile, Joe has learned, around the same time, that Jean was never a married woman, and he travels to England to find her. He meets up with her solicitor only to find out that she is away. Of course, this turn of events creates tension and conflict for the reader, but they eventually cross paths and meet again. It is a sweet love story, one that is romantic and full of anticipation.
The rest of the story focuses on their romance, and Jean’s ability to live in the tiny outback Australian town where Joe has made his living. It is a nothing town, a horrible place for a woman, but Jean is able to use her money to create businesses and grow the town, employing young women and keeping them there for the men who work the cattle stations. While there, they have some exciting adventures, and in the end, they are a happy and loving couple. I really enjoyed the read.
As hinted earlier, there is some discussion of gender relations and inequality. In war, the women experience much of the pain of being women because of their circumstances, and in the villages they visit, they see how the Malayan women are often treated. When Jean returns to build the well for the village, she must convince the chief to also include a wash house for the women, who are eager for it and tell Jean that the men always get the best of everything. They were anxious to get something of their own. Jean also suffers from some wrongheaded ideas about women, for her uncle’s stipulation of her inheritance was that she not control the money until she turned 35. He had first left the money to her mother and then her brother, but because they were both dead by the time her uncle died, Jean inherited it, but she was only 30. However, her solicitor has some discretion to dispense funds if it seems wise to do so, and he ends up releasing more of her funds than her uncle probably thought should be for her capitalistic ventures in Willstown, Australia, which she is determined to make more like the town of Alice, a town Joe told her about so many times during the war.
While the book presents these backward and old-fashioned ideas about women, Jean seems to break all of the stereotypes and prove her uncle and others wrong. She is capable of leading a group of exhausted and hungry female prisoners hundreds of miles all over Malaya. She is able to find a situation that works for them in a local village in order to live out the rest of the war without marching. She is fluent in Malay and she is confident and capable of traveling on her own. She is careful with her money and capable of owning many profitable businesses, started for the good of the community. She sees a need and fills it. While this book is partially a romantic love story, it is mostly about a strong woman who proves people wrong when it comes to judging her sex. Jean Paget doesn’t need anybody’s pity or kindness. She’s perfectly capable of caring for herself and for conversing and brokering logically and competently in order to improve her situation.
While Jean Paget is busy building a town like Alice, I was busy figuring out how I could become a woman like Jean.
I enjoyed this one too: http://norberthaupt.com/2014/09/15/book-review-a-town-like-alice-by-nevil-shute/
I’ve heard of this book for years but never really knew what it was about. Thanks for the review! Maybe I’ll read it sometime.
It was a fun one!
This sounds like a brutal novel, in all honesty. It’s pretty tough! The brutality also makes it more interesting, in my opinion, taking this book to a level above sweet romance and beach reads. Thanks for the recommendation!
It comes across as more realistic than the traditional romance novel.
Also, the 6-hour Pride and Prejudice you’re thinking of is a mini series from the BBC starring Colin Firth. His character in that mini series was the inspiration for the Mr. Darcy character in Bridget Jones’s diary, a fact that is discussing in the second book of the Jones series. 😉
Thanks Emily. History is filled with strong women who overcame obstacles, often with little fanfare. Men who have underestimated this strength and perseverance did so at their own peril or loss. Getting back to “Half the Sky,” the Chinese proverb is right, women do hold up have the sky. When a community overlooks this fact, they are competing in a competitive world woefully shorthanded.
Definitely. I think the character in this book is certainly an example of how women hold up half the sky (or more than half sometimes). 🙂
Shute was also the author of On the Beach, a huge bestseller about life (if you could call it that) after a nuclear war. It was later made into a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. The man knew how to write a page turner.
Oooh, that sounds like a good one. I’ll put it on my list!
You need to read On the Beach! It is one of my favorite books! Not only is it a page turner, it is also really thought provoking. One of those books that make you question what you would do in the aftermath of a nuclear war.
Oooh, that sounds interesting!
Dear Emily, I am new on wordpress. I just wanted to tell you, that I really really enjoy exploring your blog. I love books as much as you obviously do. I send you a thousand good wishes from Germany. Lina
Lina, it is so nice to “meet” you! Welcome and happy blogging. Thank you for exploring my blog. 🙂
I remember my mother watching this, too, but I didn’t know the story. I’ll add the book to my reading list. Thanks.
I think you would like it. I want to watch the movie again.
I’ve never seen the movie, but about five years ago, my wife and I made this our roadtrip audiobook. I was captivated!
This would make an awesome road trip book!
Reblogged this on ragragmagoo and commented:
This is just an interesting thing .
no problem . (well to tell the truth Emily , I , em , only read the first couple of lines , it was the first blog to suit my purpose , am in college and am just learning how to use wordpress , lol , but , now that i’ve got your blog (so to speak) i will probably take a look at it in the future . I know it was visually attractive to me anyway coz like , i know that i would n’t have liked it if i didn’t like it , know what i mean . cheers ! hope you’re well . later ….
I love that you write about books that might not otherwise be on our radars. This title feels vaguely familiar to me, but I didn’t know what it was about either. The woman/Japanese/international aspects appeal to me and I may pick this up one day!
Let me know if you end up reading it. I do tend to read older or less popular books. I went through a popular new fiction phase in my early 20s but I haven’t visited those much since. I need to!
I went through a Nevil Shute phase in high school in the 1970s before the movie A Town Like Alice. I love both versions, but the book is a fuller depiction of the story. Thanks for reminding me.
That must have been a fun reading phase! I need to read more of his work.
I don’t know about fun. A Town Like Alice is about the lightest of his books, as I remember. But I loved On the Beach, despite its subject matter.
Good to know! Sometimes those reading phases can be heavy. I went through a Holocaust one and a slavery one. Not fun, but informative.
Cool! Thanks for the report. I love Nevil Shute, but I did know he had written that story. Something to look forward to — also, thanks for the reminder about the BBC list. Think I’ll pop over there now…
Enjoy the list. It has been fun to discover new books that way.