As I embarked on an epic two and a half thousand mile journey overland across Australia from Darwin to Melbourne in December last year and January this year I decided it was time to read some more Australian literature, as I had seven years ago when I travelled up the East Coast of Australia (see my previous blog on Going Down Under). Given I was headed to Alice Springs it seemed appropriate to read the classic by Nevil Chute A Town Like Alice.
It had the added interest for me of being about the prisoner of war experience in Malaysia in World War Two, something I have read about elsewhere (see my blogs on wartime Malaysia and similarly on the Thai Burma railway, and also on David Malouf’s The great world).
I thought it was an utterly charming book. It starts in Scotland as a solicitor is instructed by an elderly client to be executor for a will that at first seems unlikely to benefit Jean, the heroine of the book. It then follows her story of life in Malaysia and her experience when war breaks out of trying to save a group of English wives and families as they are passed around by Japanese soldiers with no idea what to do with them. I discovered at the end of reading the book that this experience is actually based on the true story of a Dutch woman who saved a group of Dutch women during the war in the Dutch East Indies.
In the course of this journey across Malaysia Jean meets an Australian soldier Joe who is tortured by the Japanese in trying to help her and is left for dead. After the war in London our solicitor finds Jean to tell her she has inherited and a sweet friendship develops between the two. Over the course of deciding what to do about her future she decides to bravely go back to Malaysia and in doing so discovers that the Australian soldier did not die.
So, as Joe travels half way around the world to find Jean, having recently discovered that she was not married as he had thought, she travels to Australia to find him. To cut a long story short they meet, and then set about a new life together in Queensland where she decides to develop a tiny town serving the local cattle stations into A Town Like Alice, the town he talked of to her during the war.
What is so good about this book is how it manages to convey both extremes of torture and death under the Japanese in the war and the quiet life of domestic contentment in lonely outback Australia. It is easy to see why this book is a modern classic and one very worthwhile, interesting and enjoyable to read.