The Backlist: A Town Like Alice (1950)

He was an aeronautical engineer by day and novelist by night. Oxford educated and bit of a pilot daredevil, he tried to keep his writing success—of which he’d have much—apart from his day job. So, as an engineer, he was known as Nevil Shute Norway. As a writer, Nevil Shute.

Shute completed his first novel in 1923 at 24 years old. His second was published three years later, and from there, minus a six-year break, he finished a novel every two years.

A Town like Alice remains one of my favorites. This 1950 WW2 novel, made into a film twice and a radio production once, is my old friend whose company I revisit again and again.

Protagonist Jean Paget speaks to me. She is a quiet British typist whose penchant for the Malaysian language from childhood saves her life—and seventeen others.

Jean follows her brother back to Malaysia as a young single only to be caught unawares with other expats in the tsunami of Japanese overthrow.  Herded with thirty-two British women and children, Jean begins the walk that will kill many. There are no prison camps for women. Instead they walk. Twelve hundred miles.

As the scraggly band head east and arrive near Kuantan, Jean encounters two Australian POWs, one of which is Joe Harman.

If this story has sunk into my bones, then it’s safe to say that the war stories the novel is based on sunk into Shute’s bones too. For example, the seed from which Joe Harman lives is the Australian Herbert James “Ringer” Edwards who survived a 63-hour crucifixion.

This novel became an international best seller. As I read it for the fifth or sixth time, I know why. Shute’s characters speak to the readers of his day. Joe and Jean try desperately to return to normal, but because of war trauma, cannot. So, they create a new normal.

After my MFA where I was so focused on fiction craft, I worried. Would I still love A Town like Alice? I found Shute’s omniscient narrator a little dated and saw that he cheated a bit with point of view. But the story still rivets me.

Jean. She’s so self-effacing and smart—and kind. She assess a situation and acts. And Joe. If his Australian phrases like “a fair cow” leave me a little puzzled, I don’t mind. I hear his slow speech and just really like him.

The last film production was 1983. Actor Bryan Brown plays Joe—and is Joe to me. But the story aches for an updated version. Soon? I hope.

A Town like Alice. A story worth remembering.