Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Review: A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute's "A Town Like Alice" is one of those rare books that hooked me from its first words and upset me simply because at the end, it was over. Among its many qualities (like excellent writing and a sense of humor) it has three distinctive attributes that made it difficult to put down: it's an excitingly heroic story, it's a three-act play, and that a large part of it has to do with Australia.

Firstly, I'm a sucker for heroic stories, and this is certainly one. It's a story of leadership forged in the fire of desperation, anguish, and against impossible odds. This might seem like many other "hero" stories, but it isn't. In "A Town Like Alice" the author wraps the characters in an ever-tightening blanket of misery and only then gently peels back the folds. There is no moment when Jean, the hero, bursts forth in sudden acknowledgement of her purpose. It's a slow, organic process. It started when, in an attempt to deal with the discomfort of the stifling Malayan heat, Jean wore a sarong - an action heavily scoffed at by the other British women. But they eventually followed her in this and other "non-British" actions necessary for survival. They made Jean their leader without ever saying so, and without her ever meaning to be. After the war, Jean's leadership qualities lay dormant, stifled under the proper British code of conduct, until she acted upon her true potential. Not once, but at least twice more. 

The fact that the story is actually a three-act play is very appealing to me. I thoroughly enjoy novels that move you through time and space from one era and setting to another, and then to another. Whenever I reach some point towards the end of a book, I like suddenly realizing that the author has taken me on a journey, that I have traveled with the characters from one place and its challenges, to other places and their challenges. It feels good to believe that I have had a part in helping the characters grow, just by reading the words and turning the pages. "A Town Like Alice" plunges you into the World War Two Japanese occupation of Malaya, and thrusts you into a whirlwind of events until you somehow find yourself sitting on a deck chair under the shade of gum trees in the Australian outback, drinking a respectable cup of English tea.

Since reading "A Town Like Alice", I've found myself saying things like, "Bonza, mate!" and "My word, it's a fair cow". I never lived in the outback, I never spoke with a slow talking broad Australian accent, and while I understand Aussie slang, I never used it in everyday speech. But Nevil Shute really nails the accent in his writing (which is no mean feat) such that those expressions and idioms feel so familiar. What's more, reading "A Town Like Alice" makes me want to visit places like Coober Pedy, Broken Hill, and Wagga Wagga. I want to knock back a few coldies in a pub in Broome, and say things like "fair dinkum" and be perfectly understood.

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