Sunday, May 22, 2011
I honestly don't know why it took me so long to read this utterly fantastic book--after all my dad spent years aged 4-14 in Australia and his sisters and parents returned there after WWII so all of my cousins except one are in Australia and I really should know more about the country, but I digress.
A Town Like Alice is wonderful. First person narration by a London solicitor, Noel Strachan, who recounts the story of one of his clients, Jean Paget, who is taken prisoner as a 20-year old in Malaya by the Japanese in WWII. She is a born leader, compassionate, practical, resourceful, and diplomatic. She rallies the other women and children who were also taken prisoner at the same time, and without fuss, arrogance, or power-mongering enables them to survive months of marching from town to town and then a couple of years as labourers in a rice paddy.
Early into her captivity she meets an Australian prisoner, Joe Harman, who befriends her and is crucified for his actions. The chemistry between Jean and Joe is not only palpable but achingly lovely. I don't want to give away the plot because reading the story fresh and without any expectations for how things work was such a completely enjoyable experience that I don't want to ruin it for anyone.
And I do want to stress how much I enjoyed this book. I enjoy virtually all the books I read, even those I don't like much, if that makes sense, because I enjoy reading. But this book is special--it truly captivated my interest and I found myself sitting slack-jawed as I marveled at the ingenuity, grace, and heart of Jean Paget. She's my new role model, and had I read this book as a young woman I might have set off for the Australian outback to try to find a town of my own to build.
After I finished the book I did a smidgeon of reading about the book on Wikipedia. Apparently, Nevil Shute based the Jean Paget character on a Dutch woman who had a similar experience in Sumatra, and the Joe Harman character on an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign who had been crucified by the Japanese while working on the Burma Railway. It's clear that Shute based the narrator, Noel Strachan, on himself.
I honestly cannot praise this book too much--if you like love stories, read it--if you like history, read it--if you like dramas, read it--if you like great writing, read it. I do feel compelled to note that this book was published in 1950 and reflects WWII and post-war British/colonial views with regards to Australian Aborigines. The protagonists do use derogatory slang when referring to their Japanese captors also. It's not a politically correct book, but I do feel that it is historically accurate.
Now I get to watch the 5-hour BBC mini-series from 1981, starring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown. Tried as I might, I couldn't find a dvd so I hope the VCR still works--haven't used it for years. I've heard from many people that the mini-series rivals the book in terms of "OMG, this is so good!"