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After the conquest of Malaya in 1942, the Japanese invaded Sumatra and took control of the island. A group of eighty Dutch women and children were collected, and no one wanted to take responsibility for these prisoners of war. These eighty women were marched from one region to the other, for a long two and a half years, and less than thirty of them survived the ordeal. Nevil Shute met one of the survivors, and A Town Like Alice is his tribute to that brave lady.
Noel Strachan, a lawyer acts as the trustee of his client who stipulates that if his niece is to inherit his fortune, she may not get full access to her fortune before she turns thirty five. Noel meets the niece upon the death of his client, and discovers that Jean Paget is no ordinary woman. She narrates her ordeal in World War II in Malaya when she and her band of women were made to walk from one location to another, in search of a camp for women, or for a boat to Singapore after the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
“People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had,” she said quietly, staring into the embers. “They don’t know what it was like, not being in a camp.”
Jean wants to put her inheritance to good use and install a simple water pump at the village that finally sheltered the women where they worked on paddy fields. This would ensure that the women did not walk a long distance to fetch water every single day.
Among the many things that haunt Jean, the death of Australian Joe Harman who got crucified for stealing chickens from the Japanese commander so Jean and her group could have something to eat, brings great sadness to her. Jean decides to visit Alice, the town in Australia that he spoke so highly of.
And when she goes to Australia, Jean discovers that Joe is still alive. And unbeknownst to her, he goes to England to find her, because he discovers that Mrs Boong as he called her, was not married. They both want to see if they stand a chance with each other.
They do meet, and in her enterprising manner, Jean sets up a business that ensures that the back of the beyond Willstown becomes a thriving town. And yes, they do marry eventually.
The Malayan and Australian landscapes are well etched out, and in the manner of many romantic epics, there are no intrinsically bad people in the book. Apart from learning of Joe Harman’s survival, there are very few twists in the plot, even though the story travels across many destinations.
Despite that, A Town like Alice reads very well. The sheer grit and determination of Jean Paget to not only survive, but also leave an indelible mark at whatever she chooses to do, is commendable.
“She looked at him in wonder. “Do people think of me like that? I only did what anybody could have done.”
“That’s as it may be,” he replied. “The fact is, that you did it.”
Read this when you want to believe that despite all its hardships, there is gentility in life and that anything is possible!
A Town Called Alice
359 pages, Published 2000 by House of Stratus (first published 1950)
Available in print and as an ebook on Amazon and other bookstores