Saturday, January 23, 2010
A novel told partly in flashbacks about a girl's search for the Australian she met in Malaya during World War II. "A harrowing, exciting, and in the end very satisfying war romance. A Town Like Alice tells of a young woman who miraculously survived a Japanese "death march" in World War II, and of an Australian soldier, also a prisoner of war, who offered to help her--even at the cost of his life.
Originally published under the title "The Legacy".
This was a great book. I doubt I will able to do justice to it with a review, but I will try.
The audio version of it, read by Robin Bailey, was superb. I couldn't stop listening to it. Having seen the BBC version from the 1980's years ago, I had forgotten a lot of the story, so it was as if this was the first time being introduced to the story, though I did have a pretty good idea of how it ended. The story is broken down into two parts. The first part in Malaysia, during WWII, and the second part takes place after the war in Australia.
The story begins as told by an aging solicitor in London, Noel Strachan who befriends a new client, a young twenty-something girl, Jean Paget, who has come into some money left to her by an uncle. Due to a strict provision in her uncle's will, she will not come into the bulk of the estate until she is 35 years old, the estate is held in trust until she can inherit. In the meantime, she can live off of the income from the trust, so Mr. Strachan becomes her friend and helps her adjust to having this new found money. During that first year, their friendship grows and we learn that Jean had been a prisoner in Malaysia during WWII when the Japanese took over Malaysia. It is now a few years after the war and she recounts her tale of how she and several other women and children had to march all over Malaysia looking for a camp to be settled in. Over the course of this marching period, many die and there is much suffering and hardships that they experience.
They meet two Australian men, one of whom, Joe Harmon, befriends Jean, in particular. She is the women's leader of a sort, and they develop a particular friendship. Joe is under the impression Jean is married, which is probably a good thing, for as Jean remarks later, it was a dangerous time and something could have easily happened between then in an instant when so much war and suffering was going on. Desperate times could have easily led to something both would later regret. Unfortunately, before this could have even become a possibility, Joe is punished for stealing for Jean and her band of women. He is tortured and crucified in front of them. His hands are nailed to a tree and he is flogged to death. The women and children are traumatized by the sight and Jean feels the guilt and sorrow for the rest of her life, feeling it had been her fault. After this horrible incident, the women are whisked away and must continue on in their journey, eventually winding up in a tiny village for three years until the war is over and they can return home to England.
Six years later when Jean is recounting the story to Noel, she declares that she would like to return to that tiny village and build them a well as a thank you for the way the villagers had taken care of her and the other prisoners. She goes back and builds her well, and while there she discovers the incredible truth that the young man who was crucified had not died after all. In fact, he was back in Queensland as a Ringer (a type of Australian cowboy) and managing a homestead in the Outback. She is determined to visit him and see for her herself if he is indeed all right, and to lay to rest her curiosity of whether or not there was a spark between them, or was it only her imagination? She cannot return to England without pursuing it, no matter what the outcome.
Meanwhile, little does she know that Joe Harmon has gone to England to see her! He has only just found out that she had been unmarried during that time in Malay. He'd never forgotten her and he needed to see if she was the same as he had remembered. He had plans to ask her to marry him. While in London, he meets her solicitor friend, Noel, who doesn't tell him she's pursuing him in Australia, but Noel arranges it so that they will meet in Australia as soon as Joe returns. As you can imagine the story is tantalizing, since you're dying to find out how they will react to seeing one another again!
Once they do reunite it is wonderful! At first, they're a bit awkward together, but they go away for a weekend on a beautiful tropical island and there they can relax and get to know one another again. I cried for them, it was such a relief that they were able to come together and be happy together! Although this book was written in the 1950's, there is no sex, but the chemistry of them together is palpable, it more than makes up for the type of graphic material common in today's novels. Theirs is a memorable love story, and of course, I couldn't help but notice the similarities between Joe and Jamie Fraser of Outlander. Both were flogged and have horribly scarred backs due to sacrificing themselves for the women they love. Joe's mother is even from Inverness, Scotland, so that makes him a Highlander in a way, doesn't it? ;) Still, Joe is an Aussie through and through. He has a slow Queensland drawl to him. He's sticks out like a sore thumb while in London, but in the Outback he knows his stuff and I loved the imagery of the land and the feel for Australia. It is evocative, makes you want to go there and see it - I know I do now!
Why is this book titled, A Town Like Alice? Because Alice is the name of a little town in the Outback that Joe has told Jean about while they are prisoners in Malaysia. He speaks of it fondly. There's nothing else like it, an oasis in the barren desert of Northern Queensland. The little town near where he works, Willston, is a drab, dull and very, very ordinary backwater with nothing to offer. Joe's worried that Jean will never marry him for it's such a dreary town to be near. But Jean is resourceful and comes up with plenty of enterprising ideas to bring the town up to scratch and make it attractive so it will grow and prosper - to become a town like Alice! Get it?
It's great to see how Jean is so resourceful and full of great ideas. She is such a strong, but quiet and gentle woman. Joe is supportive of her completely, and I'm glad that he's not put off by her money. He's not the kind of man that won't let his wife have businesses of her own. They support each other entirely, it was a pleasure to get to know them. The ending of the book is satisfying, we're content with how Joe and Jean wind up and happy with their life and achievements together. Noel Strachan, her solicitor friend who narrates the entire story, brings it full circle at the end. He is most endearing as Jean's confidante - the eyes and ears to the story.
I think this will probably be one of the best books of the year for me. It's heartwarming and poignant, a great love story. I can't recommend it enough, I'm still basking in the glow from it, I didn't want it to end. A pity there is no sequel, though I will be sure to read everything by Nevil Shute now, a great storyteller.