Today I’m turning my attention to Australia and to a book which I first read as a young teenager. Admittedly, back then I had to put up with its German translation and, what is worse, with an abridged version, but the story impressed me so that it lingered on in my memory for decades. It occurred to me that after all those years it could be an interesting experience to read the original of A Town Like Alice (published as The Legacy in the USA) by Nevil Shute and to see how I feel about this mainstream novel now as a passably well-read woman in my forties. So here's my review!
Nevil Shute, in full Nevil Shute Norway, was born in London, England, U.K., in January 1899. After his engineering studies he worked as an aeronautical engineer until 1938, when he decided to retreat from his own (highly successful) aircraft construction company. By then he had already published three novels: Marazan (1926), So Disdained (1928), and Lonely Road (1932). From 1938 on Nevil Shute wrote full-time and prolifically. His most important works produced until after World War II are Ruined City (1938; published as Kindling in the USA), What Happened to the Corbetts (1939), Pied Piper (1942), Pastoral (1944), The Chequer Board (1947), and No Highway (1948). In the late 1940s the novelist decided to move to Australia with his family. Notable among his Australian novels are above all A Town Like Alice (1950), Round the Bend (1951), The Far Country (1952), In the Wet (1953), Beyond the Black Stump (1956), and On the Beach (1957). Also his autobiography of the years before 1938, Slide Rule (1954), was produced during this last period of his life. Nevil Shute died in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, shortly before his sixty-first birthday in January 1960.
The narrator of A Town Like Alice is the old family solicitor Noel Strachan from London who writes down the story of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman whose trustee he was according to the will of the late Douglas Macfadden. It was quite a surprise for the shorthand typist in a shoe and handbag factory, when Mr. Strachan told her that her uncle had left her his estate, even though in trust until she was thirty-five, and that the capital yields that she was to receive until 1956 would allow her to live without the need to work unless she wanted to. As the widowed solicitor got to know Jean Paget better, he took a fancy bordering on love to the unusually mature woman of twenty-eight years. On one occasion she told him the whole story of her life or rather survival in Malaya during World War II, when she and thirty-one women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese and marched criss-cross through the country under guard. After several months on the road they met two other prisoners-of-war, men driving trucks for the Japanese. One of them was the Australian stockman Joe Harman who got himself into dangerous trouble stealing chickens from the Japanese captain for the women and children, but above all for Jean Paget. When he was found out, he was nailed to a tree and beaten to death before the eyes of the other prisoners. The women and children continued their exhausting odyssey until their only guard died and Jean Paget who was fluent in Malay arranged for the remaining party to stay in a village and work in the rice fields until the end of the war instead of marching on. When Jean Paget received her first cheque from the trust, she returned to the Malayan village to thank the native women for their hospitality and to build a well for them. There she heard that Joe Harman hadn’t died from the beating after all and she decided to go on to his native Australia to look for him, to Alice Springs where he had been living before the war. Alas he worked in Queensland now and moreover he had just taken a plane to England in search for her! And that’s the beginning of an amazing adventure during which the industrious and energetic Jean Paget used part of her trust money to turn remote and backward Willstown in the outback of Queensland into “a town like Alice” Springs where she could bear living as the wife of Joe Harman.
In A Town Like Alice there is always something going on. Nevil Shute skilfully interweaved the multilayered main plot about the Macfadden trust, which allows Jean Paget to put her various business ideas and town development plans into practice, with the flashback on her experience as a prisoner in Malaya during the war and with Joe Harman’s precipitate trip to London. Despite all, the story remains straight and clear throughout. Everything that happens seems plausible because it results from previous events and decisions, and yet, there are some unexpected turns. Certain aspects of the novel seem outdated, especially when it comes to the love story between Jean and Joe which is a lot more innocent than we are used to today. Times have changed since the book first came out in 1950 and so have values and manners. The author’s style is simple and easy to read – maybe with the exception of some typically Australian expressions and there my problems with it may be rooted in the fact that English isn’t my native language.
Summing up, I can say that I enjoyed also this second read of A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. The novel may not be as deep and challenging as the reads that I use to like best, but it certainly was entertaining. It deserved to be a bestseller in the 1950s… and it’s worthwhile reading today, too.