August Books 11) A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

I picked this up last night and really couldn’t put it down. Despite the instinctive racism (against Australian aborigines and Japanese, though the Malays get off rather better) and the resounding endorsement of Shute’s firmly conservative values, I found Jean Paget a fascinating character – survivor and leader of a group of prisoners in Malaya during the second world war, then pursuing the man she loves and thought was dead to his home in Australia, then when she finds his home town is not the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, she decides to turn it into the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, basically by using her unexpectedly inherited fortune to create a local economy based on employing the local young women. Shute is not exactly a progressive writer, but Jean Paget surely counts as a feminist protagonist even though not written by a feminist author; she challenges and to a certain extent gets around gender roles, particularly in the constrained social environment of 1940’s Australia. Even if she does win all her wars, she suffers enough setbacks in the process to keep our sympathy, all told in Shute’s crystal-clear, direct prose. I really enjoyed it.

One thought on “August Books 11) A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

  1. In a lot of those cases, I’m puzzled as to why the list-maker picked that one, when other works by the same author appeal to me far more.

    The ones I would recommend:
    A Beleaguered City – Margaret Oliphant. This is a high Victorian ghost story. At her best, Margaret Oliphant was an excellent writer, though her overall work was dragged down by the pressure to churn out work under financial pressures. If you enjoy Victorian novelists this would probably suit you.

    The Red Magician – Lisa Goldstein. When I saw that this was a fantasy about the Holocaust, I was very wary. But I found it a really gripping read, and the magic fits very well into the atmosphere of the disappearing Central European Jewish tradition.

    Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – Elizabeth Moon. I’d recommend this with some reservations. The prose can be very plodding, the heroine can be annoyingly obtuse, and a lot of world-building seems very derivative of the whole Dungeons and Dragons set-up; furthermore, you really need to read the whole trilogy to get the benefit of the story set up in the first book. But there’s one thing Moon did which (for me) makes the story worthwhile – her characters show a very believable kind of holiness and grace, where the religion seems real, rather than the caricature found in so many fantasies. So I like these books, in spite of all their faults.

    Tam Lin – Pamela Dean. I enjoyed my own University years at UCD, but I’ve always been fascinated by descriptions of the more immersive college experience found in other places. Tam Lin has the same kind of overpowering nostalgia for the American liberal arts college experience that you find for Oxford in Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

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