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Old 02-20-2013, 06:06 AM   #1
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February 2013 Discussion: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (spoilers)

The time has come to discuss the fascinating February 2013 MobileRead Book Club selection, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. What did you think?
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Old 02-20-2013, 07:59 AM   #2
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As I said in another topic I was thrilled to realize this was in fact the film and mini-series I had both enjoyed so much way back when!
I can't say i remember a lot from the film and TV versions (apart from liking them - and Bryan Brown...), but I have a feeling the book gave more of a back story, and I liked that a lot.
The book felt "modern" considering it was written back in the 50's. It's interesting to see a man tell a story about such a strong woman.
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Old 02-20-2013, 09:28 AM   #3
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While the blatant racism (mostly in the 3rd "act" of the book) was uncomfortable, the story as a whole was entertaining. Like Black Rain, from last year, A Town Like Alice took me by surprise. I think I will be less apprehensive of war time novels, going forward.

This did not read like a Romance to me. Yes the elements were there (again towards the latter half of the book) but this was certainly more Historical Fiction.
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Old 02-20-2013, 09:46 AM   #4
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I haven't read this in decades, but I remember it well enough that I'm going to comment. I think the story is entertaining, but it's badly written. I doubt I'd be able to read it now, my tolerance for shoddy writing having been greatly reduced.

The use of Strachan as a narrator was an obvious and tempting device, but Shute didn't play by the rules. It was fine for him essentially to transcribe Jean's ordeal in Malaya as she related it to him, but after that he showed an impossible knowledge of Jean's activites in the Far East and most especially in Australia. We're supposed to believe that Jean even wrote in her letters to him about how she ended up bruised after snogging with Joe? Moreover, at times Strachan even seemed to be able to tell what was going on in Joe's mind! Generally speaking, the detail and knowledge of minutiae was impossible at Strachan's distance. Shute used Strachan to be able to comment on Jean's beauty and pluck and intelligence, etc., without using the direct authorial voice, but he didn't let it constrain his narrative as he should. Fail.

And just a couple of preposterous plot points. At the same time that Jean inherits a fortune, uses it to travel to the Far East and learns that Joe is alive, Joe learns that Jean was single, wins a pool, and travels to London? Oh, c'mon.

Then, there's the absurd closed economic system that Jean was able to parlay on the basis of a shoe factory employing four. The World Bank missed out when she wasn't made Czarina for life. I expected Willstown to beat Sydney to an opera house, at the rate she was going. Shute had a story he wanted to tell, but he left reality in the dust.

Add to that wooden prose and unnatural dialogue. I won't go into detail about the rampant racism, but Mrs. Boong fails to charm, even before we see the attitude toward the aboriginal people in Oz. Even if you tolerate the cringe-inducing moments as a reflection of its time, it's not worth such a flawed book.

I'm calling Shute a hack who no longer deserves to be read.
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Old 02-20-2013, 09:51 AM   #5
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This did not read like a Romance to me. Yes the elements were there (again towards the latter half of the book) but this was certainly more Historical Fiction.
For me, historical fiction is set in a time before that in which it was written, ie, it's historical fiction from the get-go. Town was contemporary fiction when it was written and it remains so. Historical fiction relies on research and can reveal an author's expertise or lack of knowledge regarding the setting; it also frequently benefits from authorial knowledge of what happens next.
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:24 AM   #6
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It was the first time I read something of Nevil Shute and I rather liked the book. Perhaps the fact that I read it straight after Nabokov's Lolita did attribute something to this.

I read it in a day and liked it; a nice uncomplicated romance, about nice people; a bit old fashioned. It remembered me of my early reading days, when there were not many childrens book around and I made do with what I could find in the house.

It was written in 1950 and is very much a contemporary novel. I think it was common to speak about coloured people in, now seen as, racist wording. Colonialism was still a normal thing then, although many countries were in the process of decolonization.

Some things in this book are too good to be true; the coïncidence of Joe and Jean Paget both hearing news about each other and others. Also the story of how its told by Strachan is a bit far fetched, in the sense that he is, wrongly, presented as an omniscient narrator. He seems to hover above all, knowing all and that is just not possible.

What surprised me, although I should have known it, is the story of the capture of British and Australians by the Japanese. I only know the tales of the Dutch that have suffered in the camps of the Japanese (women and children) and the men working on the Burma Railway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanes...n_of_Indonesia
In that sense this book has contributed to my awareness of their history.
Also it was one of the few times that I read something about life in Australia in the 50ies.

Last edited by desertblues; 02-20-2013 at 10:32 AM. Reason: well......grammar......
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Old 02-20-2013, 10:59 AM   #7
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Much of what I was to say about this book has already been stated by others, especially Issybird. The racism in Australia, the implausible occurrences, and Shute's playing fast and loose with the story narration.

I would also add that it made me uncomfortable to be reminded of the superior attitude of the British colonial occupiers towards the Japanese and the Malaysians. Taking a quote from the book:


Quote:
‘No nets, no beds,’ he [Captain Yoniata] said. ‘Very sorry for you. Japanese womans sleep on mat on floor. All Japanese sleep on mat. You put away proud thoughts, very bad thing. You sleep on mat like Japanese womans.’

‘But we’re English,’ she [Mrs Horsefall] said indignantly. ‘We don’t sleep on the floor like animals!’
His eyes hardened; he motioned to the sentries, who gripped her by each arm. Then he hit her four stinging blows upon the face with the flat of his hand. ‘Very bad thoughts,’ he said, and turned upon his heel, and left them. No more was said about beds.
Even defeated and prisoners of the Japanese the British expected to be treated like hothouse flowers. I was reminded of this quote form the film The Bridge on the River Kwai:

Quote:
"I hate the British! You are defeated but you have no shame. You are stubborn but you have no pride. You endure but you have no courage. I hate the British!" Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) from his Oscar worthy performance.
I was also struck by the sexist attitudes prevalent in the book.

Quote:
I nodded. ‘Of course not. Well, you’ll find it all in legal language in the copy of the will which I shall give you, but what it means is this, Miss Paget. Your uncle, when he made this will, had a very poor opinion of the ability of women to manage their own money. I’m sorry to have to say such a thing, but it is better for you to know the whole of the facts.’

She laughed. ‘Please don’t apologize for him, Mr Strachan. Go on.’

‘At first, he was quite unwilling that you should inherit the capital of the estate till you were forty years old,’ I said. ‘I contested that view, but I was unable to get him to agree to any less period than the present arrangement in the will. Now, the object of a trust is this. The testator appoints trustees – in this case, myself and my partner – who undertake to do their best to preserve the capital intact and hand it over to the legatee – to you – when the trust expires.’

‘I see. Uncle Douglas was afraid that I might spend the fifty-three thousand all at once.’

I nodded. ‘That was in his mind. He did not know you, of course, Miss Paget, so there was nothing personal about it. He felt that in general women were less fit than men to handle large sums of money at an early age.’

She said quietly, ‘He may have been right.’ She thought for a minute, and then she said, ‘So you’re going to look after the money for me till I’m thirty-five and give me the interest to spend in the meantime? Nine hundred a year?’
So I can understand that attitude about the competence of women being accepted in society, and by Strachan, but Jean Padget who had survived the ordeal during WWII and since then making her own way just fine agreeing with it?

I did think that this was definitely in the correct category as a romance. It was a fairy tale type romance, two people destined to be together meet under trying circumstances, are parted by history, yet in the end come together through almost miraculous means and live happily ever after.

Quote:
Originally Posted by desertblues View Post
It was the first time I read something of Nevil Shute and I rather liked the book. Perhaps the fact that I read it straight after Nabokov's Lolita did attribute something to this.

I read it in a day and liked it; a nice uncomplicated romance, about nice people; a bit old fashioned. It remembered me of my early reading days, when there were not many childrens book around and I made do with what I could find in the house.

It was written in 1950 and is very much a contemporary novel. I think it was common to speak about coloured people in, now seen as, racist wording. Colonialism was still a normal thing then, although many countries were in the process of decolonization.

Some things in this book are too good to be true; the coïncidence of Joe and Jean Paget both hearing news about each other and others. Also the story of how its told by Strachan is a bit far fetched, in the sense that he is, wrongly, presented as an omniscient narrator. He seems to hover above all, knowing all and that is just not possible.

What surprised me, although I should have known it, is the story of the capture of British and Australians by the Japanese. I only know the tales of the Dutch that have suffered in the camps of the Japanese (women and children) and the men working on the Burma Railway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanes...n_of_Indonesia
In that sense this book has contributed to my awareness of their history.
Also it was one of the few times that I read something about life in Australia in the 50ies.
From the author's note section of my ebook edition:

Quote:
On the publication of this book I expect to be accused of falsifying history, especially in regard to the march and death of the homeless women prisoners. I shall be told that nothing of the sort ever happened in Malaya, and this is true. It happened in Sumatra.
After the conquest of Malaya in 1942 the Japanese invaded Sumatra and quickly took the island. A party of about eighty Dutch women and children were collected in the vicinity of Padang. The local Japanese commander was reluctant to assume responsibility for these women and, to solve his problem, marched them out of his area; so began a trek all round Sumatra which lasted for two and a half years. At the end of this vast journey less than thirty of them were still alive.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:09 AM   #8
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This did not read like a Romance to me. Yes the elements were there (again towards the latter half of the book) but this was certainly more Historical Fiction.
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For me, historical fiction is set in a time before that in which it was written, ie, it's historical fiction from the get-go. Town was contemporary fiction when it was written and it remains so. Historical fiction relies on research and can reveal an author's expertise or lack of knowledge regarding the setting; it also frequently benefits from authorial knowledge of what happens next.
I didn't realize it was written/published in the 50s. So yes, Contemporary Fiction.

The main point for me was that it did not feel or read like a Romance, IMO.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:15 AM   #9
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For me it was definitely a book of two halves. At the outset, it felt like a story from Robbert Goddard (a good thing) - a story rooted in the past, where decisions made years and even decades ago has a impact on current events. However, once the narrative moved from Malaya to Australia, it felt like a different book altogether. It became a simple romance weaved around a faintly ridiculous story of the single-handed regeneration of a town by one person. Donald Trump eat your heart out. Fun, but not too believable. The casual racism was hard to take at times, though was no doubt an accurate reflection of the times. The thing that struck me in the Oz section was the intimate detail that the narrator Strachan knew about the unfolding events. I found myself brought out of the story as I contemplated how he could have known what was happening to that level of detail at such a far remove.

On balance, an enjoyable read which I liked more than I thought I would. The writing was simpler than I was expecting, but the story, particularly the early bits in Malasia during the war, were absorbing and at times fascinating.

Last edited by orlok; 02-20-2013 at 11:18 AM.
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Old 02-20-2013, 11:39 AM   #10
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For me it was definitely a book of two halves. At the outset, it felt like a story from Robbert Goddard (a good thing) - a story rooted in the past, where decisions made years and even decades ago has a impact on current events. However, once the narrative moved from Malaya to Australia, it felt like a different book altogether. It became a simple romance weaved around a faintly ridiculous story of the single-handed regeneration of a town by one person. Donald Trump eat your heart out. Fun, but not too believable. The casual racism was hard to take at times, though was no doubt an accurate reflection of the times. The thing that struck me in the Oz section was the intimate detail that the narrator Strachan knew about the unfolding events. I found myself brought out of the story as I contemplated how he could have known what was happening to that level of detail at such a far remove.

On balance, an enjoyable read which I liked more than I thought I would. The writing was simpler than I was expecting, but the story, particularly the early bits in Malasia during the war, were absorbing and at times fascinating.
Excellent review Orlok.

I guess I just didn't take the book that seriously. I read it for what it was, a story of trials, tribulations and triumph. I'm guessing that my having little expectations going into it, helped as far as my enjoying it. I really didn't care how or why Strachan knew what he knew, because it wasn't really about him. It was easy for me to push his voice into the back ground as "just" the narrator, when he wasn't directly involved in whatever was going on.
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Old 02-20-2013, 12:03 PM   #11
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If you ignore the narration blunders like Strachan knowing too much about things he'd never know about, then the story sort of works. But it just seems a bit much at times. Also, when Strachan didn't tell Joe about Jean on her way to go see him, that was just mean and cruel. It's at that point, I lost any respect for Strachan.

I did like the story in Malaya. That was good. But it got a bit fanciful when it got to OZ and we had Jean basically building a town. The romance was silly. When they met in OZ, it wasn't romantic. It came off more like a business deal. If I can get he town going, we'll get married. otherwise, I'll go home. That's not love. That's a business deal.
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Old 02-20-2013, 12:18 PM   #12
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To me this is definitely a romance book even thought it takes quite a while for the romance to actually happen.
Putting it in that "easy-read-romance" category probably makes me less critical than I should be.
Oh yes, coincident too good to be true, I agree. Immediate and unrealistic success of pretty much everything Jean touched, absolutely. But it was kind of a feel-good-read for me.
It's not a book I'm likely to re-read, but it put a smile on my face when I needed it.
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Old 02-20-2013, 02:07 PM   #13
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I read strictly for pleasure, so if a book entertains me I make few other judgments about it. For that reason I rarely review a book. I can overlook many flaws if I remain eager to turn the next page.

A Town Called Alice passed that test for me. I often felt amusement by the improbability that Strachan would know the most intimate details of Jean’s life. I was going to write a ridiculing sentence about the idea that Jean could single-handedly cause a town to flourish until I remembered that the resurrection of my own lovely town was initiated by one individual.

The racism that permeated the characters’ attitudes was uncomfortable as it always is in a book that accurately reflects culture and era. But I am even less comfortable with historical novels that do not reflect prevailing attitudes so that the writer and readers can all feel better. If old books are expurgated and new historical novels free from the taint of racism, who can then understand the pain of the past and the enormous courage of the people who stood against it?
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Old 02-20-2013, 03:12 PM   #14
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The racism that permeated the characters’ attitudes was uncomfortable as it always is in a book that accurately reflects culture and era. But I am even less comfortable with historical novels that do not reflect prevailing attitudes so that the writer and readers can all feel better. If old books are expurgated and new historical novels free from the taint of racism, who can then understand the pain of the past and the enormous courage of the people who stood against it?
A Town Like Alice is not a historical novel. Historical fiction is fiction written in the past. The author's past. This is a contemporary piece of fiction given when it is about and when it was written.

Overall, I liked the story. But the way in which it was written leaves something to be desired.
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Old 02-20-2013, 03:43 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by JSWolf View Post
A Town Like Alice is not a historical novel. Historical fiction is fiction written in the past. The author's past. This is a contemporary piece of fiction given when it is about and when it was written.
I understand the distinction between contemporary and historical novels and that A Town Like Alice is a contemporary novel. I was referring generally to cultural attitudes in books about historical eras.
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