Courage and Love Amidst Strife
In countless a literary work, the horrors of war have been immortalized. It is from these printed works that we learn and understand the way in which wars have shaped our modern landscape. But war stories are not always about violence and bloodshed. Rising above the din are stories of survival, of hope, of courage and of rising above the circumstances. Like phoenixes rising from the ashes after 500-years, their are those amongst us who roar back at life, never shackled by the pains of the past.
In Nevil Shute’s literary tour-de-force, A Town Like Alice, he weaves the story of a set of characters who chose to rise above their abhorrent experiences during the height of the Second World War. It is a story of how they survived and eventually restored and rebuilt their lives from what the fragments of the war. Jean Paget, a secretary in a leather goods factory in the Malayan Peninsula (present-day Malaysia), found herself caught in crossfire of the war. Together with a group of women, Jean was captured by the Japanese army. With no accommodate more prisoners of war, Paget and her group was forced to March all over the peninsula to find a prison that will take them in.
After marching for hundred of miles and after many have perished, the group found reprieve in a small Malayan village which took them in their fold despite the fear of reprisal from the daunting Japaneses soldiers. In the village, the surviving women and children thrived with the locals. Before they knew it, the war was over. When, post-war, Jean received a shocking inheritance from an uncle she barely knew, she returned to the village to repay them for their kindness. During, her visit to the village that adopted her, she was greeted with a very welcome news that will once again reset her world and her life.
“People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had, she said quietly, staring into the embers. they don’t know what it was like, not being in a camp.” ~ Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice
A Town Like Alice is a mirror of the Second World War, of how it impacted the lives of normal individuals. But it is more than just about bloodshed. The novel is the antithesis of violence. Yes, A Town Like Alice is a story about the war but it is also a story of courage, tenacity, and survival. Jean’s indomitable spirit and resolve to see everyone through trying times made the story fly. It was her fighting spirit that carried the story through one-third of the story.
Despite finding themselves in dire straits in an unknown territory, Jean scampered on, brimming with enthusiasm and hope. Even when exhaustion and tropical diseases were weakening her and her company, she never wavered. In moments when it was easy to resort to cowardice, her courage kept her fighting through the circumstances. She was the paragon of strength and indomitable courage in a period when pandemonium reigned. This is the most engrossing part of the novel and is also the only episode that was based on real-life events.
Survival and courage in times of strife are were narrative’s centrifugal point in its first portion. Just like most narratives, A Town Like Alice has several layers to it, thus, giving it different complexions and textures. The middle part of the story follows the romance between Jean and Joe Harman, an Australian solider who has also fallen captive to the Japanese during the war. Unlike the first part, the middle part is looser and lighter.
The final layer of the story deals with Jean’s dream of establishing Willstown, a town she envisions to be “like Alice”, based form Joe’s description of the place. It is reminiscent of many a post-war novel – the community rebuilding. To use a hackneyed phrase, it is about “picking up all the pieces.” Entrepreneurship played a major role in Jean’s endeavors. She poured the money she received from her inheritance into creating Willstown a better place.
“Men’ s souls are naturally inclined to covetousness; but if ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do.” ~ Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice
However, rather than crafting plots and story lines that linger, Nevil Shute created dramas that had ephemeral impact. Whilst the part based on historical context made the elevates the narrative to great literary heights, it also made the rest of the text pale in comparison. In the parts after Jean’s march in the Malayan Peninsula, Shute seemed like a writer without any clear intentions. With him, the narrative wandered as he interjected barely developed characters.
To create more tension and different textures, Shute indulged in poignant drama. His uncanny ability to paint such scenes is inimitable. Shute punctuated Jean and Joe’s story with short episodes but most were of little consequence to the entire story. Rather than having lingering impact, such short episodes were enticing, for a while, and left ephemeral impact. They serve as minor distractions.
In the first half of the novel, Shute’s writing repertoire thrived. His writing was sharp and vivid as he perfectly drew the rough contours of the Malayan Peninsula through his magical prose and without prejudice. Everything began to unravel when the story took a sharp turn towards romance and community building. The romantic facet of the story was underdeveloped and full of cliches, even ludicrous at some points. The last two-thirds of the novel was loose and confused.
“It was a gambler’s action, but his whole life had probably been made up of gambles; it could hardly be otherwise in the outback.” ~ Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice
If there is one thing one learns from reading many books it is that no narrative is ever perfect. There will always be blemishes that one will notice. And as flawed as A Town Like Alice is, it had its moments under the sun. Again, the first third was superb and powerful. Jean’s courage made it shine. But once Jean’s courage has been related, the story started to get muddled. With every story line going askew, it showed a lack of clear direction.
Shute failed to capitalize the novel’s strong start. Post-World War, the story slumped. If the romance was unfortunate, the last third even more so. From a historical drama to a romantic story, the novel evolved into a travelogue about the Australian outback. From a story, it turned into a do-it-yourself book about setting up a successful business in rural Australia. The last two thirds of the book was its undoing. Jean Paget’s heroics, however, will remain embedded in reader’s mind.
Characters (30%) – 13%
Plot (30%) – 17%
Writing (25%) – 15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%
I really, really loved the first third of the novel. Jean’s march all throughout Malaya is pulsating, riveting and, is without a doubt, the centrifugal point of the novel. It is the story of courage, of hope, and of resourcefulness. The historical facets of the novel were stellar, including the details and the writing. But I just wish the novel ended there or that the story revolved around it.
As strong and as stellar as the start was, the second third of the novel was underwhelming. The romance was underdeveloped and didn’t compliment the first part of the novel. Its impact was fleeting.The last third of the novel was just fine, perhaps an apology for the dullness of the middle part. It was still an “okay” read nonetheless.
Author: Nevil Shute
Publisher: House of Stratus
Publishing Date: 2000
Number of Pages: 359
Genre: War Story, Romance
Jean Paget has survived World War II as a prisoner of the Japanese in Malaya. After the war she comes into an inheritance that enables her to return to Malaya to repay the villagers who helped her to survive. But her return visit changes her life again, when she discovers that an Australian soldier she thought had died has survived. She goes to Australia in search of him and of the town he described to her. Jean sets out to apply the same determination that helped her to survive the war, to turning the community into ‘a town like Alice’. She finds both her solder and romance.
About the Author
(Image from Wikipedia) Nevil Shute Norway was born on January 17, 1899 in Ealing, Middlesex, England.
He earned his education at the Dragon School, Shrewbury School and Balliol College. In 1922, he graduated from Oxford University with a third-class degree in engineering science. At the onset of the First World War, he trained as a gunner at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Unfortunately, because of his stammer, he was unable to take up a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He then served as a soldier in the Suffolk regiment. After the war, he took a career in aviation and was even made a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Shute’s literary career began with Stephen Morris, which he wrote in 1923 but was published posthumously in 1961 together with its 1924 sequel, Pilotage. In 1926, Marazan became his first published work. His other works include On the Beach (1957), A Town Like Alice (1950) and Trustee from the Toolroom (1960). Some of his works were also adapted for the screen, including Lonely Road in 1936, Pied Piper in 1942, On the Beach in 1959, and A Town Like Alice in 1956.
Shute passed away on January 12, 1960 in Melbourne due to a stroke.