A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

War and peace, and cattle…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A Town Like AliceWhen solicitor Noel Strachan makes a will for an elderly client, it seems straightforward – the client’s nephew will inherit all his money. But the war intervenes and, like so many young men, the nephew dies. So when the client also dies a couple of years after the war, the money goes to his niece, Jean Paget, but with a clause that makes Strachan her trustee until she is thirty-five. This brings the two together, and elderly Strachan develops a sentimental attachment to young Jean. Over the next few years, they write long letters to each other, and it’s from these that Strachan is now telling us Jean’s story.

When the war broke out, Jean was working as a typist in colonial Malaya and, along with a group of other English people, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. The men were promptly sent to a prisoner of war camp. The women and children were not so lucky. Marched for hundreds of miles around Malaya while the Japanese tried to find somewhere to leave them, illness and exhaustion was too much for some of them. The hardier ones eventually found themselves a kind of refuge in a small village where they waited out the war. Now that Jean has come into some money, she wants to pay the villagers back for their kindness, and so starts her new journey, first to Malaya and then all the way to Willstown, an old mining town in the outback of Australia, where she finds a new challenge on which to turn her resourceful nature.

What a great storyteller Shute is! His style is oddly plain – no great poetic flourishes or literary tricks. But he brings a whole range of characters to life: the rather lonely widower Strachan, the women and their captors in Malaya, the people in the Australian outback and, of course, Jean herself. He doesn’t fill the pages with descriptions of their emotional inner life – he simply tells the often horrific story of the women’s march and leaves the reader to do the work with her own imagination. It’s far more effective than if every emotional twinge was handed to the reader on a plate. It leaves space for each reader to imagine how she would have coped – would she have survived?

Nevil Shute

For me, the Malayan section is quite a bit stronger than the Australian section, because of the sense of danger and uncertainty and the picture of the cruelty so many prisoners suffered at the hands of the Japanese. The Australian section has a more domestic feel – not a bad thing, simply less to my taste. However, we are given a great depiction of the primitive style of life in these isolated towns at that time, cut off from their neighbours by the huge distances of Australia, so unfamiliar to those of us on this crowded little island of Great Britain. Jean finds that girls don’t stay in Willstown – there’s no work for them and no form of entertainment. They’re not even allowed to go into the one bar in town – strictly men only. So they leave for the cities as soon as they’re old enough, and that makes it hard to keep single men on the cattle ranches too. Jean decides that somehow she must make Willstown into a town like Alice Springs, with enough opportunities for work and fun to keep young people around.

I’ll be honest – at this stage I began to find Jean intensely irritating. She seems to be the only one in town who ever has an idea, or is capable of making a plan. Everyone else, men and women alike, mostly stand around either doubting her or gasping in amazement at her ingenuity. But fortunately there had been enough before that stage to prevent this section from dragging the book too far down, and I liked the other characters, especially Strachan. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Jean too, I just wanted to roll my eyes at her every now and again when she came up with a new cunning plan. But I loved learning all about the cattle ranching, and the way the isolated homesteads kept in touch by radio, and the sense of community that exists even across the huge distances between the ranches, with neighbours pitching in to help out in a crisis.

I was considerably less tickled by the constant racism that infests the book, both in Malaya and Australia, and the fact that Shute clearly held these attitudes himself. But it was standard for the time, so I was able to overlook it for the most part. I could imagine it might be harder to overlook if you were an Australian Aboriginal person being forced to read this in school, though – I wondered if it’s on the curriculum. I also wondered if Australians were OK with the idea that a young woman from England needed to solve all the problems they were clearly incapable of solving for themselves. But then I told myself to shut up and stop over-analysing, and just enjoy the story, which I did!

Robin Bailey
Robin Bailey

Robin Bailey’s narration is great. He has the perfect accent for Strachan – that very proper English post-war voice that we’re all so used to from films of the era. But he also does what sounds to me like a very good Australian accent, and he reads the book as if he’s totally involved in Jean’s story himself, just like Strachan is.

Rose recommended this one to me after I’d enjoyed On the Beach, and I’m very glad she did. An excellent read or listen, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of Shute’s work – I think I can now count myself as a fan!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

66 thoughts on “A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

  1. I really like when the reader is free to fill in the gaps! You are not constrained to a specific plot and imagination takes over! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a pity she gets like that towards the end because I really liked her in the Malayan section – she was still super competent but somehow the circumstances made it work better. So don’t be completely put off!

      Liked by 1 person

    • For some reason I’ve never seen the film so I didn’t know the story at all. He is very much a storyteller rather than a “literary” writer, if you know what I mean – which for me is a good thing on the whole. On the Beach is great too but kinda depressing since it’s about the end of the world… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Always discomfiting reading racist views but more positively it’s a reminder that we’ve progressed some way along a more tolerant road, although it doesn’t always feel that way. You make a good point about teaching the novel, though. I wonder how that’s handled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sometimes I can overlook racism, and sexism, in older books quite easily, but sometimes it really stands out and I’m often not quite sure why. Here it was the casual acceptance of the second-class status of the Aboriginal people that got me – the assumption that the reader would feel the same way. Which I suppose contemporary readers mostly did.

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  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I always think of the story as two different stories, the Malayan section and the Australian section. I don’t believe the book has ever been on the school curriculum although anything is possible. Over the years I suspect there were a great many Australian books that weren’t overtly racist because instead, they ignored Aboriginal people completely.

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    • Me too! 😀 It is like two different stories joined together, isn’t it? The Australian bit was great for me because I enjoyed seeing how life was back then – the amazing distances in Australia always blow my mind! (We think we’ve gone on a journey over here if we travel more than twenty miles… 😉 ) But the Malayan section was more involving, I think, and the shocking event halfway through really got to me because I didn’t know the story at all so didn’t know that… hmm, I’m in danger of spoilers, but hopefully you know what I mean. And I really liked Strachan, silly old romantic that he was… 😀 I think that’s true – if he hadn’t mentioned the Aboriginal characters I wouldn’t have noticed, but because he did I became very aware of how casually they were treated as second-class citizens. Oddly, I had less of a problem with the way he showed the Japanese although he was just as rude about them – maybe with them being the enemy in the book I didn’t mind so much…

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      • My commute into work is 20 miles! But you’re right, distance is relative. People in the country travel even greater distances and people in the outback even more again. I think Australians take distances for granted, as a plane trip to the UK from Melbourne is still around 24 hours and in my grandparent’s time this took several months on a ship.
        I do recall the terrible event in the middle you are referring to, and also remember Strachan’s character with fondness. I liked most of Shute’s characters although it has been years since I’ve read them. Trustee from the Toolroom was a favourite, also The Far Country and In the Wet (I’ve just run down and looked in my bookcase and to be honest, I could name all of them as favourites).
        I didn’t notice the racism when I first read these books, but I probably wouldn’t have then. I imagine the books are written in the world-view of the time and to be fair, I was never a very critical reader anyway, although am more aware now than then. Quite a few of his books are set around WW2 so if ever I reread them I’ll probably now notice this.

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        • At one point I had a commute of about 50 miles and everyone thought I was crazy and that I should move nearer to my work. But I liked where I lived! And it gave me oodles of time in the car to listen to audiobooks…
          The popular vote seems to be for Pied Piper – have you read that one? It looks interesting from the blurb.
          I definitely notice racism more now than I did even a couple of decades ago. I suppose it’s a good thing in that it means we’ve all had our eyes opened, but it does make enjoying older books harder work. I wasn’t so bothered about the way he portrayed the Japanese, because they were the enemy and the war was very recent, but the stuff about the Australian Aboriginals was harder, though it was standard for the time.

          Liked by 1 person

          • 50 miles is a long commute! Outside of Covid lockdowns I take a lot of road trips, for work as well as for personal reasons and enjoy the forced mental break, and find that I become much more creative.
            Pied Piper is a good one. I think you would like the story.
            Yes, sometimes it is hard to read older books that no longer fit our present world view. The sense of shame regarding racism or irritation, etc with other ‘isms’ have definitely made me wonder what I (or previous generations) once saw in a once-loved book. I remember talking to a much older Canadian man years ago about Gone With the Wind and remember being astounded by his take on the book (he was particularly scathing about what he saw as glorifying war and the racist society that had profited from slavery) whereas all I had read was a romance.

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            • I always had a kind of fantasy of driving for miles and miles along a straight, deserted road – something that never happens here. You might get a quiet road, but it will be twisty and require full attention, and the straight roads are all crowded with traffic. We need to make half the population emigrate!

              Yes, I loved the film of Gone With the Wind when I was a teenager, but when I tried to read the book a couple of years ago I found it vilely racist to the point of being unreadable. But back in those days we were an almost exclusively white society, so it made a kind of sense that we lazily accepted the picture of black people we got from books and films. Thankfully now we’re more mixed so we know better, and attitudes are very different generally speaking, even although racism is still alive and kicking.

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  4. I’m glad you enjoyed this so much over all, I’ll need to re-read it sometime. I loved it, but remember Jean being a bit of a pain and somewhat idealised to an extent, but it didn’t take away from anything else. It was clearly of its time though, and I might have more issues with it now, much of that side of it went over my head before, I was probably too young. Your thoughts about giving the reader space to fill in emotional details for herself made me think. I don’t mind a spot of character interiority sometimes, but it can be overdone and draggs the energy of a text, it is all about balance between showing and telling rather than an either or for me.

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    • Yes, I found Jean a bit annoying but not enough to spoil the story in any way. I liked her better in Malaya, and did wonder if my own sexism was showing through – I didn’t seem to mind her being the only competent one among the women, but when she got to Australia among the men she began to irritate me. It’s unfortunate, or maybe fortunate, that racism in these older books is getting harder and harder to overlook, even though I recognise it was standard for the time. However it does always remind me how much social attitudes have changed even in my lifetime, so that’s got to be a good thing!

      I noticed a huge difference in style between this and contemporary fiction. He very much just tells the reader what happens and leaves it up to the reader to imagine what that must have been like. Most novels now tell every detail of what a character is feeling so there’s not much room left for the reader’s imagination.

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  5. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of his other titles, Pied Piper among them, and have been meaning to read this one for ages. I can see how Jean could end up irritating one, but it still seems like a book I should pick up at some point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only read this and On the Beach, but since a few people have mentioned Pied Piper I think I’ll need to make it my next one. Jean only irritated me towards the end and I liked her enough by that stage to forgive her. 😉 It’s a great story though, and if you already like his style, I think you’d enjoy it.

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  6. I like that advice, FictionFan – ‘…shut up and enjoy the story.’ I’ve had to tell myself to do that more than once. I agree with you about Shute’s spare style. He tells the story and lets the reader work things out, and I consider that a sign of respect. I’ve read too many authors who launch into all sorts of unnecessary explanations or descriptions, and I find myself much less engaged in those stories. You also raise an interesting question about the racism and attitudes in the novel. In part you have to say it’s a book of its time. In part, though, you do wonder… – well I do.

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    • Haha, yes, I do annoy myself sometimes by over-analysing books – I think it’s a side-effect of reviewing! I do like when an author leaves room for the reader to imagine how things would make them feel – when you’re told every last emotion, then somehow you feel more like a viewer than a participant in a story, if that makes sense. For some reason the racism in this one stood out to me, although he wasn’t really making a thing of it, and probably thought he was being quite nice about the Aboriginal characters. But it was the casual acceptance that they should be happy to be treated as second-class citizens – sometimes out-and-out racism feels less insidious than that built-in assumption that the reader will agree…

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  7. I’ve read this a couple of times, shocked each time by the descriptions of the Malayan side of things, I recall. I loved the section about small town Australian life, so fascinating; not so great about the Indigenous people, though, as you point out.

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    • I did think the Malayan side was stronger but like you I found the description of life in Australia fascinating. I’m always blown away by the sheer size of Australia – it always makes me feel as if we’re all crowded on top of each other here! The racism was unfortunate, even if it was fairly standard for the time.

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  8. Having read other titles, I’m looking forward to this one. The racism of the era is difficult to read, yet it is also a reflection point of awareness in how times are changing in terms of acceptance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very true, Pam – the casual racism in these older books often makes me stop and reflect on how much social attitudes have changed for the better even in my own lifetime. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the book – it’s a great story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  9. This and On the Beach are the two books by Shute I’ve read and I enjoyed them both a great deal. I agree that the section during the war was more engaging and has been what stuck with me but it was also an interesting depiction of life in rural Australia, which was something I hadn’t read about much before.

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  10. I’ve not read any of his work nor (I don’t think) have I seen the film version of On the Beach.

    It’s almost impossible to read anything written from an earlier time that doesn’t cause offense to someone. I agree that you just sometimes have to admit “that’s how it was” and move on.

    I’m more than halfway through The Four Winds (Kristin Hannah) now and it’s been rather eye-opening (especially comparing it to present day).

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    • I only watched the film of On the Beach after I’d read the book, and while I enjoyed it the casting was all wrong. I’d probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t read it so recently. The book’s great!

      Yes, sometimes the racism and sexism in older books doesn’t bother me at all, but sometimes it really stands out and I’m never quite sure why. But I’m sure today’s books will offend future attitudes too – they might even object to all the sex and swearing… 😉

      Have you read The Grapes of Wrath? I wonder how they compare as a contemporary view against a historical view, if you know what I mean.

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      • I have not read it (once upon a time I would have been ashamed to admit that) and I don’t plan to anytime soon. This one’s wearing me out! I’m hoping she has some good endnotes since I’m curious about its historical accuracy. While I’ve read some stuff set in the Great Depression, It’s never been from this viewpoint.

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        • I think I did give The Grapes of Wrath 5 stars in the end – some of the writing is gorgeous – but oh, it was hard work, and there’s was loads I could cheerfully have seen cut out. And Steinbeck, as always, gave a totally bleak view – there’s nothing to lighten the tone at any point, so it’s a deeply depressing read. I might try The Four Winds sometime depending on your overall impression when you finish it…

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    • The only other one I’ve read is On the Beach and I enjoyed them both just about the same, I think, though it’ll be interesting to see which one stays in my mind. You’re the second person to mention Pied Piper, so I think I’ll make that my next one. 😀

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    • Ha! I just replied to Jilanne that it’s already on my wishlist after someone else highly recommended it to me a few months ago – Kelly, I think! I shall bump it up my priority list! 😀

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  11. I’m another who hasn’t read any of his works, but I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this one immensely. I realize it’s hard to read books of different periods — especially when some things have changed so much over the years — but I think they have a purpose. If nothing else, to make us appreciate how far we’ve come (in certain areas, of course).

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    • That’s very true, Debbie – these older books often remind me how much social attitudes have changed, mostly for the better, even in my own lifetime. It’s a pity that sometimes it reduces the pleasure of older books a little, but it does give a good insight into how things were at the time – often better than historical fiction can do.

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  12. It is a pleasure when an author leaves space for a reader to use their imagination and a straightforward writing style can be more difficult than it seems. I have to admit that at this point in my life I’m getting less tolerant of casual racism or sexism in the books I read. It is definitely a good thing that it has gotten less acceptable though. No doubt people in the futre will look back at us and shake their heads over our mistakes.

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    • I struggle more with racism and sexism too now – I often try to think how I would feel if I was a member of the race a book is denigrating or ignoring. But it does always help to remind me how far we’ve come, even if there’s still a long way to go. And yes, I expect the future will be astonished by some of the things we think are OK!

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  13. Hello,
    Great review! I can assure you that this book is not in the Australian Curriculum. It would be interesting to know if it was in the past.
    I am a big fan of Shute’s work. However, as noted, they are somewhat dated in some ways.
    This book was turned into a mini-series starring Sigrid Thorton in the main role and Bryan Brown. Not a bad adaptation although not the easiest thing to track down these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and thanks for popping in and commenting! I’m glad to hear it’s not on the curriculum – good though it is, the attitudes are so dated I imagine it would be a difficult one, though maybe it would lead to some useful discussions. I haven’t seen the mini-series or the movie – must look out for them.

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    • I read two of Shute’s books last year (On the Beach, The Pied Piper) and A Town Like Alice is the next Shute novel on my list. I know what you mean about a story well told and I like the humanity of his characters conveyed without deep inner exploration. They are satisfying reads.

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      • While I enjoy books that are a bit more emotional sometimes, I do appreciate when an author simply tells a story and allows us to imagine the impact on the characters for ourselves. The Pied Piper is the one most people seem to be recommending so I think it’ll be next on my list.

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  14. I haven’t read this or anything by Nevil Shute but I’m going to, you make a strong case! I think it’s fine to do a bit of analysing it shows we’re interested, but yes we don’t want it to take over from the story and this does sound good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s that older-fashioned storytelling style that he does so well – just tells you what happened and leaves you to imagine what it must have been like. I find it very effective! The outdated attitudes are always a problem, but so long as we’re aware of them then it’s a good way to remind us that things have changed, even if they’re not perfect yet!

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  15. Thankfully, this is not on the school curriculum in Australia. Shute lived the last decade of his life in Australia, so he did know of what he wrote about Australia, but his work is very dated now. The 50’s were still a time when many Australians looked to England as ‘home’ or referred to it as “Mother England’. Certainly our PM’s were that way inclined at the time.

    Personally, I first came to this story in 1981 when it was turned into a tv series (about 6 episodes I think). It starred a very young Bryan Brown as the love interest to Helen Morse’s Jean. Gordon Jackson played Strachan beautifully.
    I haven’t tried to read this again as an adult, but I did find On the Beach quaint and dated when I read it a few years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I quite like that dated feel, possibly because I’ve been reading so much colonial-era fiction over the last few years. And obviously the attitudes were standard for the time, but for some reason they really stood out in this one, and made it harder than some of them to accept. I’m glad it;s not on the curriculum – I think it would be a difficult one for Aboriginal pupils to find anything much to appreciate in it, except maybe an appreciation that we have improved, even if we’re not perfect yet!
      Gordon Jackson seems like perfect casting for Strachan! I must keep an eye out for a repeat of the TV series – it sounds good.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I have the same problem you do FF-sometimes I just need to tell myself to shut up and stop analyzing, and pretend I’m not a book reviewer, just a person who loves books! I find the less serious a book is, the easier it is to just ‘enjoy myself’, although it’s not always possible!

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  17. We watched the film this week and my husband was able to explain how it differs from the book – quite markedly it seems. I can imagine that Jean would be irritating, a bit too good to be true.

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    • I must try to catch the film sometime. The book feels very much like two different stories, only linked by Jean’s character. I’d imagine that might be quite jarring in a film so I can see that they may have wanted to tie it together a bit more.

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