Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Town Like Alice

Book:A Town Like Alice
Author: Nevile Shute
Edition:  Nook
Read: July 2012
799 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

This is a story told in two parts about a young woman, Jean Paget, from the vantage point of a solicitor, Noel Stratchan. After World War II, Paget finds out that she has received an inheritance from a rich uncle she hardly knew. But there are provisions stating that she could not receive her inheritance until reaching 35 years old-she would need to have the solicitor manage the inheritance assets.

The first part of the story tells of Paget's time under Japanese occupation during World War II. She was captured, put in with a group of other white women and marched around the Malaysian peninsula. The second part tells of what she does with her money, most of it in Australia, around the town of Alice Springs. There she meets up with her World War Two  benefactor, Joe Harman, from World War II and falls in love.

This is a novel based upon some historical facts. The author met a Dutch woman who had been held by the Japanese. Neville Shute was enthralled with her story and turned it into A Town Like Alice. In reality, Shute misunderstood part of the  story, but that misunderstanding lends itself to a better story.

Also Shute after World War II took up residency in Australia. The environment he lived in formed the background to the second part of the story.

thought I improved a little in the years that followed I had definitely joined the ranks of the old men. (15) The solicitor had taken up a routine of doing his work, taking his dinner at the club and going home. There was nothing varied about his routine, until Paget appears in his life. There are hazards to being to set in your ways. Occasionally there is a need for a little jolt in our routines.

I like to think a bit before taking any precipitate action. (26)  I've learned one thing from them, that it's never very wise to do anything in a great hurry. (36) These quotes represents the thought patterns of Stratchan. Very deliberate, methodical. Wanting to make sure he know not only the next step but two steps after that. A bit of this is good.

The woman stared at her. “You mean, his own God? Not the real God? “He didn't differentiate,” Jean said, “Just God.” (144) The context is that Paget had just concluded a long talk with a village chief. One of the women asked Paget what they talked about? There is two fold thoughts I have one this. The first is how provincial the woman was to try to differentiate between gods. She does not seem to try to understand what is being talked about. But on the other hand, Paget does not seem to discriminate between the one True God and the many false gods of this world. In the sense, Paget is very modern.

People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had. They don't know what it was like, not being in a camp. (147) Even in prison, there is a sense of "home" in a place which you are stable in. But if you are always moving, where are your roots? Where do you call home? When I have been backpacking, there is a sense of relief and desire to be back at a place where I sleep each night, even if the beauty is greater on the trail.

Death had ruthlessly eliminated the weakest members and reduced them to about half the original numbers, which made all problems of billeting and feeding in the villages far easier. (236) Natural selection at its worse.

God had sent down His Son to earth in Palestine. What if He had done it again in Malaya? (240) There was many crucifixions in Palestine during the Roman era. Only one of them was the Son of God. Shute does not realize why Jesus' death was essential and why it was a unique event. His death was to pay the cost, once and finally. There was not a need for many deaths after that.

A few more quotes which struck me:
  • Most of the women had been churchgoers when they got the chance, … deep in their hearts they had been longing for the help of God. (240)
  • … she had grown prettier, she knew, when he had come to talk to her, and more attractive. (241)
  • It's something I could do for them, for the women—something that would make life easier for them, as they made life easier for us. (270)
  • she was going back to her own place and her own people, but she was leaving three years of her life behind her, and that is never a very easy thing to do. (317)

 Most of the time, I do not like historical fiction. Not because it is un-entertaining, but because there is too much shading of reality with fiction so you never know the facts of history vs the account being presented. Also I find history fascinating enough in its own right. Neville Shute does take an actual event in the history of World War II and weaves a good story out of it. A story which I would not have heard if it was not for this book.

He does supply a note at the end of the book, saying where he got the story and his own personal fascination with it and the person relying the story. But from what I read, even this acknowledgement of where he changed the facts to make a better story, was not quite correct.

Probably the place I which I think could have been strengthened was how he put religious words into his characters mouths. Many times, they were not words which religious people would say. Nor do I think they were particularly non-religious sayings. But just flat out silly-such as could God have sent His Son again in the person of Joe Harmon to be crucified? 

Still this is a story which will not disappoint you.  This was one of the better reads which my book group has had.
Notes from my book group:
My comment to the group afterwards: Also I think we can safely say that A Town Like Alice was one of our more enjoyable reads.

 Questions for the group

What other Shute's stories do you like?

With the lawyer telling the story, how does his point of view affect the story? How would it been told differently from either Jean or Joe's point of view? (Paternal)

How did you react to the terms of the will, making it 35 years old before Jean could control the money? Was this prudent? Archaic? Would that have been reasonable before the war? After the war? How did Jean react to this restriction? What measure of freedom did it give Jean? How did it affect the story line? Also life for the Malai women. Having to ask male permission to dig the well.

MacFadden's and Jean's relationship?

With the women, how does leadership get encumbered? Why? If there had been a man in the group, would Jean still have taken leadership? Language skills—other women only know Malai words for servants. Jean knows Malai.

This book was written in 1950. Why was this story written? How was Jean's strong role be perceived then? Why did Shute make Jean a strong woman? (Shute had just settled in Australia)
What kinds of econmics does Shute propose in this book? Where would this kind of econmic work? Community building. Female entrepreneurship.

Does religion fit in to this story? Any church people? One women who was part of the women in the group. Joe being crucified.

What significance are Jean Paget's ice skates and boots in the novel?

What are the significance of sarongs in the novel?

How is the Macfadden fortune tied to Australia?

Is Strachan justified in his handling of the trust? Why or why not?

What role does the unnamed Japanese sergeant play in the novel?

What role does little Robin Holland play in the novel?

How dos Jean Paget's wild rides in the outback change her situation?

New Words:
  • plus-fours (2): long, baggy knickers for men, introduced before World War I and worn until the 1930s for sports activities, especially golf.
  • Budgerugars (4): also known as common pet parakeet or shell parakeet and informally nicknamed the budgie, is a small, long-tailed, seed-eating parrot.
  • treacle (42): molasses, especially that which is drained from the vats used in sugar refining. Or Also called golden syrup. a mild mixture of molasses, corn syrup, etc., used in cooking or as a table syrup.
  • Chancery-place (43): a records office
  • almoner (66): a hospital official who determines the amount due for a patient's treatment. Or a social worker in a hospital.
  • Chummery (82): The building in which unmarried British army officers were quartered during the British Raj.
  • amah (87): a baby's nurse, especially a wet nurse. Or a female servant; maid.
  • corpa (151): a municipality of the autonomous community of Madrid in central Spain.
  • stone, as in weight (169): a unit of weight, used esp to express human body weight, equal to 14 pounds or 6.350 kilograms
  • scunner (272): an irrational dislike
  • Dulce ridentem Lalagen amabo, Dulce logquentem (334): I will love Lalage (the name of the girl) [who is] charmingly (or:, delightfully, or: agreeably) laughing, [who is] charmingly speaking---Horace, Odes, book 1, ode 22, lines 19-20
  • pellagra (368): a disease caused by a deficiency of niacin in the diet, characterized by skin changes, severe nerve dysfunction, mental symptoms, and diarrhea.
  • Veranda (619): a large, open porch, usually roofed and partly enclosed, as by a railing, often extending across the front and sides of a house; gallery.

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: James Macfadden died in March 1905 when he was forty-seven years old; he was riding in the Driffield Point-to-Point.
  • Last Line: Of a girl that I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again, that holds so much of my affection.
  • It's no good going on living in the ashes of a dead happiness. (13)
    I like to think a bit before taking any precipitate action. (26)
  • Most jobs are interesting when you're learning them. (62)
  • I remember being completely taken aback, and seeking refuge in my habit of saying nothing when you don't know what to say. (74)
  • You won't know if it [some action] was wasted until you come to an end of your life. (268)