I picked up A Town Like Alice from my mom’s house last week after seeing the title mentioned in several places lately. The title has always appealed to me for some reason, but I was still surprised that I enjoyed it so much. In this book, Jean Paget, a typist in England, receives an inheritance that permits her to make good on a few debts from her past, debts from her horrific, life-changing experiences in Malaya during the Japanese occupation there as part of WWII.
The worlds described in A Town Like Alice are variously cruel, sexist and racist. For a sensible, capable woman like Jean Paget, it seems particularly unfair that men in England can’t imagine she has the sense to manage money before she’s turned 35 years old. Considering all she survived in her years leading up to her receiving her inheritance, Miss Paget seems more than capable of running her own life, better in fact than what most men would manage. In her further travels she encounters and in a way fosters racism against ‘Abo’ Australians and sexism that would cause modern women to bristle. I certainly found myself bristling often enough.
Jean’s character seems so modern, so easily relate-able for modern female readers that it is hard at first to imagine Jean just going along with such standards. But, I think that is part of what makes this book interesting, for modern women (and men). Jean starts out learning how to pick her battles under the most harsh and terrible circumstances, so she does not lose sight of her goals in the face of socially ingrained unfairness, regardless of where she is. She accepts what she can’t change and works with existing circumstances to improve on what is there already. As a heroine Jean Paget seems like a great role-model, seen from that perspective.
In A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute takes the reader through three distinct but interconnected stories, taking place in Great Britain, Malaya and Australia, and in each place Shute does a fantastic job of making the settings seem real. It’s a lot of ground to cover in one book, and Shute manages to tell the whole epic tale in under 400 pages, a feat many modern authors seem to find daunting even with just one setting. The pacing is not rushed, and the characters are well developed and realistic. In short, here is one classic that deserves the name, and ought to remain on reading lists for a very long time. (A shorter variation on this review is also posted by me on Goodreads.)