A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
This was a great book and my favorite among the three Australian authors I read this month. It is written in the first person in the voice of an English lawyer, as he tells the tale of Jean Paget one of his clients, who lived an extraordinary life on three different continents. The story begins with Noel Strachan the lawyer, helping an aged client change his will so that his substantial fortune will go to his sister and if she is no longer alive, to her son, and finally, in case of both the sister's and her son's death, to her daughter Jean. The will was drawn up and legalized.
Years later, upon the death of the old gentleman, Strachan has to chase down the heirs named in the will to put it into effect. He discovers that both the man's sister and her son were dead, leaving the niece as the sole inheritor. She had been in Malaya during and after World War II, but now, seven years after the war, he finds her living in London, employed as a secretary in a firm making high-end lady's shoes and bags.
When they meet, he finds her to be an attractive, modest, and unassuming young lady, with an horrendous story to tell about her time during the war. She had been working for an English owned plantation company in Malaya, when the Japanese invaded. She was rounded up along with the other foreigners and then made a captive and put in a group with other English women and their children. They were force-marched and shunted from one jungle village to the next under guard, as one Japanese officer after another, in an attempt to rid himself of the responsibility of their care, sends them off to some other destination.
Their numbers dwindle as they begin to die from disease, exhaustion, and starvation. Jean, although young, slowly became the leader of the famished group because of her ability to speak Malaysian and her willingness to shuck off English customs and dress and live more like the Malaysian villagers they meet.
At one point during this "death march" she meets an Australian POW, who was forced by the Japanese to drive a truck carrying supplies between Japanese camps. She is thrilled to be able to meet another English speaker and a man. From him she learns he is a "ringer", an Australian cowboy, from one of those gigantic empty ranches in the Outback.
He is generous, kind, and takes risks to give the women medical supplies and soap. Although Jean begs him not to endanger himself, he steals some chickens for the women to eat, is caught, nailed to a tree in front of the women, and crucified. Jean, of course, is filled with guilt, but she can do nothing as they are forced to march on.
Eventually their lone Japanese guard dies of a disease, and the women, far away from civilization, make a deal with a nearby native village. There are no young men in the village, having been forced away to work for the Japanese, the English women volunteer to work in the village rice paddies if the villagers will allow them to stay there. They spend the remaining three years of the war working for the village.
After the war, when Jean gets the first installment of her inheritance and thinks about what she wants to do now that she no longer has to work, she tells Strachan she wants to go back to that Malayan village and use some of her wealth to get a well dug for the village women so they will no longer have to carry water from a faraway spring.
While the well is being dug, she learns from one of the diggers that the crucified Australian truck driver didn't die that day, but was taken to a hospital to recover. This news changes the direction of Jean's life, and I won't tell you anymore except her next stop is the Australian Outback and the story is only half told.
I found A Town Like Alice to be just the kind of book I love to read. The storyline is compelling, the characters believable, and the novel, well written. From the novel's wide scope, I learned about life both under a Japanese occupation in the Malaysian jungles and also in small towns in the vast Australian Outback.
I enjoyed this book immensely. The novel was written in 1950 and used the language of the day and place. Today some of the language in the novel in reference to the Aborigines would be deemed racial slurs, but it honestly reflects the time and location of the story.
Take a look at my paintings: www.davidmarchant.ca