Nevil Shute

A Town Like Alice

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A Town Like Alice Summary

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British-Australian author Nevil Shute’s historical romance novel A Town Like Alice (1950) is about Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman who becomes romantically interested in a fellow prisoner of World War II being held in British Malaya. After being freed, she moves to Australia to be with him, using her financial inheritance to try to turn a small Outback community into a prosperous town — “A Town like Alice” or Alice Springs. Exploring themes of war, women’s place in society, race relations, entrepreneurship, and resurrection, A Town Like Alice, considered one of the greatest Australian novels of the era, has been adapted multiple times, most famously as a 1956 feature film starring Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, as well as a 1981 television drama that aired on Masterpiece Theater in the United States, and a 1997 BBC radio drama. It remains widely read today, especially in Australia.

A Town Like Alice begins in Scotland, as wealthy Douglas MacFadden dies and his lawyer, Noel Strachan, is sent to find his sole remaining heir, Jean Paget. The twenty-seven-year-old Jean and her brother, Donald, work in Malaya as the war ramps up. She returns to England alone after the war and works as a secretary until she gets her inheritance. It’s held in trust until she turns thirty-five; Noel is the trustee and can be called upon for financial support if Jean needs it. In the interest of MacFadden’s business, but with increasing personal interest as Noel becomes close to Jean, Strachan becomes Jean’s mentor in the financial world and helps her decide how best to spend her inheritance. She decides to make her priority to build a well in a Malayan village. The reasons for this are explained in part two of the book, which flashes back to her time during the war when she worked in Malay during the Japanese invasion and was taken prisoner with a group of women and children.

Jean, who speaks Malay fluently, falls into a leading role in the group of prisoners, who are brutally marched around the isle by sadistic Japanese captors. Many of the women are not used to physical hardship and die on the march. They’re helped by an Australian soldier, Joe Harman, who works for the Japanese as a lorry driver to stay alive. He steals food and medicine for them to keep them alive. Jean has been taking care of a toddler whose mother died, and Joe assumes she’s married, so they don’t become romantically involved. When Joe gets caught stealing chickens from the local Japanese commander to help the group, he takes the full blame to protect the women. He’s beaten, crucified, and left to die; the women are marched on thinking he’s dead. Their Japanese guard eventually dies, and the women are able to fit into the local Malay community, becoming members of a village until the war ends and they’re returned to their home countries.

Back in England and wealthy, Jean decides to build a well for the village so women will not have to walk so far to collect water, a way to pay back the village’s kindness. Strachan arranges for her to travel to Malaya, where she convinces the village headman to approve the project. While overseeing the construction, she learns that Joe Harman survived and returned to Australia. She heads to Australia to find him, visiting his old hometown of Alice Springs. Impressed with the quality of life there, she travels to the primitive town Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe works as the manager of a cattle station. It’s a rugged town and life is hard; she has the desire to make things better. Joe learns that Jean survived the war from a pilot friend, and learns that she’s never married. He travels to London to find her but learns from Strachan that she’s traveling abroad. He gets drunk and gets arrested; Strachan bails him out, giving him a hint that she may be back home. While awaiting Joe’s return, Jean founds a local workshop in Willstown to provide jobs for women making shoes. With the help of Joe and Noel, she transforms Willstown into an urban center, including a factory, an ice cream parlor, and a public swimming pool.

The final part of the book shows how Jean’s entrepreneurship helps to develop Willstown into “A town like Alice” and how she helps to tear down racial and gender barriers in Australia. The story closes as an elderly Noel Strachan visits Australia to see what Jean has done in Willstown. He reveals that the money she inherited was found in an Australian gold rush, so in a way, it returned home with her investments. Jean and Joe get married, and they name their second son Noel. Noel accepts their request to be his godfather, but he turns down their offer to move in with them in Australia. He’s ready to return home to Britain, satisfied with how he helped Jean improve countless lives.

Nevil Shute was a British-Australian author and aeronautical engineer. He wrote dozens of novels between 1923 and 1960 but was best known for A Town Like Alice and his cautionary nuclear war tale On the Beach. Three of his novels made the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the twentieth-century list.