Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. Jean travels lead her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.
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Allow me to set the scene; it’s the weekend, I’ve just finished my book and don’t want to start anything major because I have a big book on hold at the library that will be made available to me any day now. So I have a look through the other books on my library wishlist to see what’s currently available and find A Town Like Alice. A couple of hours later and I’m halfway through and I want to go to bed but… book.
I found it interesting, how the book was written. Shute changes perspectives fluently and makes use of letter writing, story telling, apparent reflection and straightforward action in moving the plot forward but the change is never awkward. The story also takes place in several different settings and each one is as beautifully conjured as the last; from a dreary London, to a humid and picturesque Malaya jungle, to the arid country towns out beyond the black stump in Queensland. The actual writing wasn’t anything special but the images it conjured, and the people it created, certainly were.
Jean is a determined and practical all around strong female lead. To me at least she was basically a much, much, nicer version of Scarlett O’Hara, taking all of Scarlett’s good qualities and few, if any, of her bad ones and that definitely endeared her to me. And then there is the introduction of the amazing Joe. I didn’t realise how few pages it could take to fall in love with a character, and apparently neither did Jean, but his stealing chickens for the group of women and children who stumbled into him – and the consequences he faced for doing so – have him ranked among my favourite fictional heroes.
A lot of ground is covered in 350 pages and while reading, I had the feeling I was reading a much larger book. The highlight for me was definitely the middle portion of the book, when Jean revisits Malaya and the plot twist she discovers while she’s there, and I found the ending to be a little anticlimactic after all of that excitement. The book is also rather racist in parts which is a little jarring from a modern perspective but taken historically is, I believe, quite accurate. I also didn’t always love how the Australians were portrayed, but for all their faults they were genuine and helpful and it all made me kind of homesick for an Australia I’ve never actually known for myself – though I did smile whenever Melbourne was mentioned. I really loved this book overall and would recommend it to anyone who asks.