British Empire Books

A Town Like Alice

AuthorNevil Shute
PublisherWilliam Clowes and Son

This enjoyable story is told from the point of view of a Mr Noel Strachan, an aging senior partner in a London firm of solicitors. Years before the story begins, the death of a partner in the firm means that Strachan has to inherit several clients. As a responsible member of the team, Strachan dutifully attends to each of his new clients and absorbs them into his own affairs. One new client, Douglas Macfadden, is unremarkable and remains one of many names to sit in the firm's filing cabinet over the next twenty years until the announcement of his death. It is at this point when Strachan is left to manage the funeral business and will arrangements that we are introduced to Macfadden's beneficiary and our heroine, Jean Paget.

As Strachan gets to know his young client, he grows increasingly fond of her and consequently finds his relationship with her less of a chore and much more of an intriguing friendship. Strachan allows the readers to learn about Paget and his feelings for her. It is very easy for us to admire and respect her as we follow her through her eventful life in London, Malaya and Australia.

The book is very enjoyable and thoroughly absorbing. There is a newly blossoming romance, but we are most interested in Paget because she faces hardships with a calm rationale and takes a strong leadership position in dealing with problems. Perhaps this is most evident when she strives to take on Alice Springs, a town like many in the outback of Australia that drives young women away, leaving its men wretched and alone. Certainly, her travels through Malaya as a prisoner of the Japanese brought unimaginable ordeals her way:

"Grief and mourning had ceased to trouble them; death was a reality to be avoided and fought, but when it came - well, it was just one of those things. After a person had died there were certain things that had to be done, the straightening of the limbs, the grave, the cross, the entry in a diary saying who had died and just exactly where the grave was. That was the end of it; they had no energy for afterthoughts."

The story is not about one hardship after another, however. The book proffers interesting insights into life and perspectives in these different countries during the World War II era.

"As was common on this journey, [the female and children prisoners] found the Japanese guards to be humane and reasonable men, uncouth in their habits and mentally far removed from western ideas, but tolerant to the weaknesses of women and deeply devoted to children."

An easy-to-read, thought-provoking, entertaining and informative book - A Town Like Alice comes highly recommended.

It was also made into a successful 1956 film

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by Stephen Luscombe