Monday, December 12, 2011

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

If you’re looking for a story with characters who happen to live in a time of war and who take the circumstances as they come, trying to make the best of it, I would recommend this 1950 book by Nevil Shute, which was voted a place on the BBC’s 2003’s list of “the nation’s 100 best-loved novels”. Although the heroine is British and her story concerns British colonialism in the Asian country of Malaysia, the hero is Australian and his life in the wilds of Australia can be likened to our own history of pioneer settlement.

Shute writes in a detailed quiet fashion, using as his principal narrator an interested observer, lawyer Noel Strachan. This device helps support the narrative by giving us the interest of Noel, the older man, hearing of the heroine Jean Piaget’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner in Malaysia, and of her meeting with the Australian rancher Joe Harmon, also a prisoner.

The amount of brutality in the book appears less in comparison to narratives of current crime fiction, or compared to stories of rape and murder in Darfur. However, Shute based his novel on true experiences of women and men who were Japanese prisoners in World War II. While the brutality may have been less horrific, more than 16,000 men died building the Burma railway for the Japanese, through sickness and exhaustion and malnutrition. And the experience of the women prisoners in the novel also happened, although in Sumatra, not Malaysia. Shute shows their suffering and how they died quietly one by one.

The love story is a good one, with their meeting by chance, then slowly making their way back to each other. Just when one obstacle is dealt with, another comes along to keep things interesting. The book presents the racial setting of Australia as it was in 1950, with native people considered as being below the white settlers. Interestingly enough, Jean notices a rancher married to a native woman, sees his intelligent face and wonders at his choice. But she herself is in love with Joe, a rancher who has had no real education and whose family emigrated to Australia out of the slums of London.

In the end, it is Shute’s essential humanity that resonates in his fiction and keeps your interest, even when the characters have the prejudices of an earlier era. That’s how he keeps them alive. When they come to a crossroads, they do everything they can – like when Joe sees Jean being beaten, and when Jean sees the world pushing Joe away from her. We want them to act, and we also want to act as they do, knowing our limitations but still risking everything for the things that count.

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