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October 16, 2017 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

A Town Like Alice — Nevil Shute

I was introduced to this novel by a bright, enthusiastic friend who adores it completely, can’t compliment it enough, and, since she is smart enough to be a law student, whose intellectual judgement I trust even though I am iffy about her career choice.

The book was written in 1950s Australia, and tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Jean Paget, who spent time working in Malaya during the war and was imprisoned for a while, but then decides, having received an unexpected inheritance after the war, to travel to Australia in search of a man who had been a prisoner with her. Once there, living in a small, budget town in the wop-wops, she pulls up her gumboots and begins to build up the economic strength of her neighbourhood — to make it more “like Alice” Springs, a thriving town not far off.

The story jumps back and forward between Jean’s two worlds, Malaya and Willstown, the Australian version of, I don’t know, Greymouth? It flashes back to her work in a small Malayan village where she first dipped her toes into the world of applied development studies, building a well for the village women to cut down on the time they spent walking to and from a local water source. The character of Jean is based on a real woman that the author once met while travelling in Sumatra in the 1940s, Carry Geysel, who had been taken prisoner by the Japanese army in the Dutch East Indies in 1942. This is pretty neat. Stories about astonishing women doing crazy things in wartime are always fascinating and beyond intimidating to me; I get truly paranoid that I would be a bit of a letdown in circumstances like that. But how great that I am a tragic anomaly, and that other women are real-life heroines.

The thing about this book is that it’s wonderfully nostalgic in a very specific way. It reminds me of the piles upon piles of old, musty novels that my Grandad had stored in the shed by his farmhouse, sitting on home-crafted shelves made of wooden planks and lived in by small, thin spiders and sparrows’ nests. They were from all the decades before the computer was invented, with leathery backs, ripped paper jackets, and pages the colour of sand at dusk. But they were books, and the magic of a book, if I can be emotional for a second, is that the story in it, if it is good, forgives everything else; in fact, transforms everything else into part of the happy experience, into part of the magic. A Town Like Alice is one of these books. Every copy you could find will probably be a little torn, and the font will remind you of segregation, and the cover illustration will be hand drawn. But it will be the story that gets to you, and then when you see those things somewhere else, you’ll be haunted by those delicious feelings.

So, as I close out this last Salient review for my tenure, I will leave you with this thought. People don’t love books because they are made of paper sheaves, or the typography is beautiful, or the pictures are captivating, or the price is low, or they pile up nicely for Instagram photos on a coffee table under lamp light. They love books because they carry a story, and the story is the magic. A person who loves books will love stories wherever they find them. They will be desperate for them, hungrily seeking out narrative and character and adventure in every corner of life. The story is the soul and the rest, mere flesh and blood.


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