This is one of the best books of the 20th century. In 1998, Modern Library voted A Town Like Alice #17 on the list of 100 Greatest English-language Novels of 20th Century. It is also known as The Legacy. It is an unbashedly romantic tale that I have read more than a dozen times. Nevil Shute was the author of 30+ novels and can best be described as “old fashioned.” His books are literate, with a distinctly British view, but also very worldly. He often explored unusual themes like reincarnation, utopian visions (In The Wet is a very entertaining variation of Brave New World.)
Shute was a trained engineer and science plays a huge role in many of his books. Many of his characters are aviators, engineers, and geologists. During his lifetime Shute was one of the most popular writers in the world and his most famous book, On The Beach, while justly famous as the only close-ended novel ever written (no one in the book survives after the final page) is one of his lesser efforts. It is a shame that dozens of Shute’s novels do not sit on the shelves of modern bookstores.
In 1981 the book was turned into a world wide award winning mini-series for Australian television starring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown, it is superb!
After World War II, a young English woman named Jean Paget learns that she has inherited a legacy from her great uncle. She is now a rich young woman with no need to work ever again. When the Scottish lawyer, Noel Strachan, whose firm manages the legacy asks what she’d like to do with the money, she replies, “I’d like to build a well.”
Jean and her family had lived in Malaysa for most of her childhood until her fathered died. Now, Jean was alone living in London. Her mother was dead and her brother died in a Japanese POW camp. Jean and her family had lived in Malaysa for most of her childhood until her father died.
Jean tells Strachan her story:During the war she was working in Malaya when the Japanese invaded and she ended up as one of a party of English women and children who are marched around Malaya by the Japanese, since no camp will take them in and the Japanese army does not want to take responsibility for them. Many of them die on the march, and the rest survive only on the charity of the local villagers. Jean’s knowledge of Malay language and culture proves invaluable to the group’s survival.
The women meet Joe Harman, an Australian soldier who is also a prisoner. He drives a truck for the Japanese across Malaya carrying supplies. He steals food and medicines to help the women and Jean and Joe become friends. Jean always carries a small boy, orphaned after his mother died, and which leads Harman to the mistaken belief that she is married; to avoid giving Joe any temptation, Jean does not correct this misperception. The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is beaten, crucified, and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The women are marched away leaving Joe for dead.
To survive, the women become part of a native village where they grow rice and work as part of the village. This saves their lives, and they live there for three years, until the war ends. This village is where Jean wants to build the well so that the local women will not have to walk so far to collect water: “A gift by women, for women”.
With her legacy, Jean travels to Malaya, where she goes back to the village and persuades the headman to allow her to build the well. While it is being built she discovers that by a strange chance Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia. She decides to travel on to Australia to find him.
In her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in Queensland where Joe has become manager of a cattle station. She soon discovers that the quality of life in Alice is an anomaly, and life for a woman in the outback is elsewhere very rugged. While staying in the local hotel in Willstown she finds that the local hunters shoot crocodiles and prepare their skins for export, at prices much lower than they are sold in England. To show the locals what their exports are used for, she makes a pair of crocodile-skin shoes in her bedroom, by hand.
In the meantime, Joe has learned both that Jean survived the war and is unmarried. He takes the money he won in the state lottery in order to travel to Britain in search of her. In London, he meets lawyer Strachan, who must decide on his client’s behalf how to handle this situation. On Strachan’s advice, Harman returns to Queensland, and Jean and Joe two finally meet again in one of the most emotionally charged and poignant love scenes ever written.
At this point, you are about halfway through the book, and I would deserve to be crucified myself if I revealed any more of the plot. Read it NOW.
Companion Read: No Highway by Nevil Shute