A TOWN LIKE ALICE, one of the most moving novels that I've ever had the privilege of reading, actually takes place in three connected segments.
As the story opens, Noel Strachan, an elderly London lawyer from Chancery Lane, engaged as executor for the will of a recently deceased bachelor client, finds himself in the position of becoming the trustee for the sole beneficiary who, under the terms of a carefully crafted will, cannot inherit the capital of a sizable estate until she turns 35. Strachan comes to know his new and now quite wealthy client, Jean Paget, an ostensibly typical 20-something young lady working as a typist for a leather goods manufacturer, as she tells the story of her experience in Malaya during the closing days of WW II six years earlier. Although he won't admit it to himself and outright denies it to his colleagues, Strachan falls in love with Paget despite their enormous difference in age as she tells the story of her shocking past.
In the second part of Shute's story, Paget picks up the narrative thread telling Strachan the horrific, heart-rending story of how she and a large group of married women were forced to walk across hundreds of miles of hot, malaria-infested Malayan territory by their Japanese captors enduring dysentery, cholera, hunger and, of course, simple exhaustion. During this gruesome death march, the ladies meet Joe Harman, a kindly Australian stockman, also captured by the Japanese who is driving a supply truck for the Japanese wartime railway construction program. When he steals some chickens from a Japanese officer to give to the ladies for food, he is captured, tortured, crucified and left to die hanging from his nailed hands on a tree trunk.
It is several years later that Paget, thinking Harman had succumbed to his torture in Malaya, and Harman, thinking that Paget, like all of her companions, was a married woman with a baby, discover that they were both wrong. The final segment of Shute's extraordinary tale of warmth, love and self-fulfilment closes as any reader would hope with them finding one another and establishing a new life and, indeed, a new community in post-war Australia, not too far from Alice Springs.
While A TOWN LIKE ALICE is unquestionably a put-a-smile-on-your-face, make-you-say-aaaah romantic tale, it is certainly not chick lit by any means. It's an imaginative, moving tale which touches on the themes of wartime atrocity, courage in the face of adversity and the difficulties and opportunities involved with the construction of a pioneering community. The simple fact of the prejudiced treatment of the aboriginal people of Australian at that time is included in a sad, ironic, rather matter of fact way without comment or criticism. Although Jean Paget, as an enlightened forward thinker, is shown as wishing that it might be otherwise, she acts as she is expected to according to the norms of the day.
Drama, suspense, romance and superb story-telling! Would I recommend it to a potential reader? Oh my word, yes! Too right! I'm not sure exactly where I'd rank it but I am quite certain I'd add it to my list of best lifetime novels. Yes, it's THAT good.
One of my Top 100 All-Time Best Novels! A superb tale of courage, romance and achievement built on the Japanese atrocities in World War II Malaya and climaxing with the development of a pioneering community in the northern cattle country of Australia.
“Probably more people have shed tears over the last page ofA Town Like Alicethan about any other novel in the English language.” —Guardian--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.