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Old 02-20-2013, 06:16 PM   #16
caleb72
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I really enjoyed this story. I tend to agree with Issybird about the writing. It was fairly unsophisticated. At the beginning I felt it resembled a shopping list of activities rather than a narrative.

It was the story itself that drew me in. I loved the Malaya saga. It was a movie in words and although I stand by my claim that the writing wasn't brilliant, I still managed a very visual experience.

I didn't have as much trouble as some regarding the turnaround of Willstown due to one woman. I believe the first part of the story taught us what we needed to know about Jean Paget and I think her actions in Australia were not that unlikely given her character. If I hadn't read about the journey through Malaya I might have had a bit more trouble picturing it - but with that out of the way, everything seemed quite plausible.

I also enjoyed the romance. It was lovely to see something a bit more understated and restrained. The circumstances of him being in London and she being in Australia were far-fetched but were clearly there more as a device to delay gratification. But I was engrossed in Jean's adaptation to Willstown, so I never felt any impatience.

I did notice the "narrator problem". It didn't really occur to me as problematic until Jean arrived in Australia. I remember at one point thinking - who's me? Then I realised we were still reading this from Strachan's point of view. I thought it was logical to have him as narrator in the first part, but I was naturally assuming that once Jean left for Malaya/Australia that the narrative would switch. But at that point, I just turned off the niggle in my head and forgot about it until I read Issybird's post in this thread.

For me, there were two romances in this book. One was the obvious Jean/Joe romance. But I thought there was a bit more to it than that. Towards the end, I felt that this was also the unrequited romance of Strachan and Jean. It wasn't a realistic romance and it was clearly one-sided, but at the same time it was always there. Shute based the novel on the real life story of women who were marched around Sumatra by the Japanese and he was honouring an extraordinary woman that he met. To some degree, I felt that he was Strachan in the story - the vehicle to admire and love Jean Paget as he may well have loved and admired the muse of this story had he met her shortly after the war.

I'm not really try to give this book extraordinary literary depth by saying that. I just felt that A Town Like Alice may have started of a bit of a daydream about a woman Shute had met and although the story forked from the real life equivalent, it still retains some of Shute's awe of that woman. It's in the beauty he constantly references, the feeling that this woman could do anything - and he puts her through one trial after an another to show not only that she will always triumph, but that she does it with admirable composure. Even her own romance is conducted impeccably.

Anyway - that's just another thought I had about the book. I might not have noticed this as much if I hadn't read the small note about the real life woman to whom the story was dedicated.
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Old 02-20-2013, 06:20 PM   #17
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Fantastic review Caleb!
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Old 02-20-2013, 06:29 PM   #18
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Fantastic review Caleb!
I agree, and it is interesting to read all your different points of view.
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Old 02-21-2013, 06:35 PM   #19
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i enjoyed reading your excellent text, Caleb 72. I agree with everything you say.

Yes, the narrative voice is a problem--as Issybird points out. Perhaps Shute should have simply used an omniscient narrator. On the other hand, when reading the book for the first time, I don't think one is immediately aware of the improbability of Jean communicating all of these ideas to Strachan--considering how personal some of them are. And I think Jean's character comes through fairly convincingly--though I wouldn't say the same about Joe.

I agree, too, that there are actually two romantic elements. Strachan clearly falls in love with Jean quite early on--witness his genuine upset when he learns that she doesn't intend to return. This also explains why he doesn't tell Joe where Jean is and that she is searching for him. Mean? Yes. But he is still smarting from his own sense of loss. What Strachan doesn't realise is that Jean does love him--but as a father figure. He adjusts to this in the end and on his visit finds that Jean and Joe regard him as part of their family and even name a child after him.

That final section does reflect certain obsessions of Shute. He was in love with Australia and admired its openness --the way it allowed a meritocracy to flourish. Further, he despised what he regarded as the stifling beauracracy which he felt dominated England. You can see this in other works he wrote--particularly The Far Country.

In the end, A Town Like Alice may not be a great novel--it certainly is rather diffuse and lacks coherence--but it is an entertaining story.

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Old 02-21-2013, 08:35 PM   #20
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I enjoyed the story elements, especially the prisoner of war section. It was a very easy book to get into and I lost track of time when I was reading it.

I understand the complaints about the narrator, but it didn't bother me when reading since Strachan didn't insert himself into the story much, so if felt more like omniscient narration by the author.

I agree that the star-crossed lovers ending up on opposite sides of the world was over the top, but I presume it's a common romantic theme (not my genre), so I can forgive it.

Interestingly, I wasn't offended by the racism and sexism, since it reflected the world at the time. I've certainly read period books that were much worse on that front.
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Old 02-21-2013, 11:02 PM   #21
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Interestingly, I wasn't offended by the racism and sexism, since it reflected the world at the time. I've certainly read period books that were much worse on that front.
I never really mentioned that aspect in my little review. I wasn't really offended by any of that either. I think the book would have come across quite strangely if a lot of that wasn't present.

I even found the Mrs Boong reference quite amusing. There was something quite genuinely playful in its use and it failed to generate any shock or outrage on my part.
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Old 02-22-2013, 04:02 AM   #22
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I wasn't really offended by any of that either. I think the book would have come across quite strangely if a lot of that wasn't present.

I even found the Mrs Boong reference quite amusing. There was something quite genuinely playful in its use and it failed to generate any shock or outrage on my part.
I had the same reaction.
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Old 02-23-2013, 12:20 PM   #23
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~snip~

I agree, too, that there are actually two romantic elements. Strachan clearly falls in love with Jean quite early on--witness his genuine upset when he learns that she doesn't intend to return. This also explains why he doesn't tell Joe where Jean is and that she is searching for him. Mean? Yes. But he is still smarting from his own sense of loss. What Strachan doesn't realise is that Jean does love him--but as a father figure. He adjusts to this in the end and on his visit finds that Jean and Joe regard him as part of their family and even name a child after him.

~snip~

.
Yes, Strachan was definitely in love with Jean and that does explain some of his actions. This seemed even more apparent to me when I saw the serialization for television a number of years ago. On screen such scenes as Strachan making the journey all the way to Australia to give Jean a pair of ice skates just because he has received a letter from her expressing dissatisfaction with her life there. What turns out to have been just a temporary mood swing of hers.

Anyway by the end Strachan seems content to assume the role of father figure, or perhaps unrelated uncle, to Jean and her family. Very much like John Jarndyce and Esther Summerson in Bleak House, eh?


To me the racism was not so much about things like “Miss Boong.” As for example when Jean is starting up her ice cream parlor she defers building the separate section where Native Australians will be allowed to enter. I suppose that given the overall tone of the book it would have been too much to expect an immigrant to Great Britain to even express any disapproval of such blatant segregation in Australia in the 1950s, but it still in noticeable.
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Old 02-23-2013, 12:29 PM   #24
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^^I think the casual racism in Australia bothered me most because Jean was quite enlightened for her time toward the Malays and Islam. Somehow she didn't bring the same empathy toward the native people of Australia. I dimly remember an incident that irritated me, her rather superior and intolerant attitude toward a white rancher, his native wife, and their mixed children.
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Old 02-23-2013, 12:39 PM   #25
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^^I think the casual racism in Australia bothered me most because Jean was quite enlightened for her time toward the Malays and Islam. Somehow she didn't bring the same empathy toward the native people of Australia. <snip>
I agree with you. There was a glimpse of that "enlightenment" when she expressed surprise over the suggestion of not allowing the Native Australians to frequent the same side of the ice cream shop as the White Australians. However, that empathy quickly and completely disappeared once she decided to open a "separate but equal" part of the store - which, if I remember correctly, was not always exactly equal.
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Old 02-24-2013, 04:46 AM   #26
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^^I think the casual racism in Australia bothered me most because Jean was quite enlightened for her time toward the Malays and Islam. Somehow she didn't bring the same empathy toward the native people of Australia. I dimly remember an incident that irritated me, her rather superior and intolerant attitude toward a white rancher, his native wife, and their mixed children.
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I agree with you. There was a glimpse of that "enlightenment" when she expressed surprise over the suggestion of not allowing the Native Australians to frequent the same side of the ice cream shop as the White Australians. However, that empathy quickly and completely disappeared once she decided to open a "separate but equal" part of the store - which, if I remember correctly, was not always exactly equal.
Strong points--both.

The problem with the racial discrimination which is certainly implied in A Town Like Alice and the contrasting abilities of Jean to cleverly push just the right buttons to use the Malayan Islamic sexism against the men themselves in the building of the well for the benefit of women is interesting. Perhaps it derives from the possibility that writers--and the characters they create--may sometimes unconsciously compartmentalize their values in an odd way. Jack London was a believer in social equality--but this didn’t extend to racial equality.

So, though it is only marginally relevant, I’ll share with you another recent literary experience I had on this subject. I read a remarkable novel. I Pose, written in 1915 by Stella Benson {1892-1933). Benson was a militant suffragette and had a deep compassion for the socially deprived poor. She was actively and practically involved in both areas.

I Pose is her first novel and it could be loosely classed as a travel-romance focussing on a young militant suffragette and a gardener--neither of whom is named. However, it is certainly a highly ironic {and ultimately tragic} look at the social conventions or “poses” people adopt rather than finding their own inner selves. Benson satirizes gender and social stereotyping and attacks the Church as being a prime supporter of the regime.

But, in one section of the travels of the two characters, the young gardener works with the black natives of an island. What bothered me was that Benson’s character used language that now would be considered racist in a context that treated the social contexts of the natives in a comedic way. I can accept the language as that which would be used by the dominant classes in 1915 but the tone bothered {and bothers} me much more. Considering Benson’s deep compassion for the poor in London, dramatized by the young suffragette, it seems odd that she would create a central character who would be so obviously racist.

I’m still not certain whether or not Benson is simply using the gardener to ironically show another form of social discrimination--if she is, (and I so want to give her the benefit of the doubt} she doesn’t make it clear enough and this remains a failing in this otherwise brashly iconoclastic youthful novel.

I intend to read her later work to see if it has a more mature outlook. { BTW Everything she wrote is in the public domain}

To return to the topic and book at hand, I suppose it is possible that Shute was completely unaware of the racism in that latter part of the novel and was reacting to built-in stereotypes. If so, it still weakens the book for a modern reader.

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Old 02-24-2013, 05:34 AM   #27
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Hmmm - I see it quite differently. I don't see Jean's decisions about the ice cream parlour to be very revealing on the point of racism casual or otherwise. I saw it purely as an example of her being shrewd. She asked for advice on the matter and then followed that advice. It is revealing about outback society at that time, but that's not necessarily the same thing.

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I dimly remember an incident that irritated me, her rather superior and intolerant attitude toward a white rancher, his native wife, and their mixed children.
Yes, that's the one incident where I felt she actually seemed to be expressing an attitude on the matter. It was mainly shock and disbelief - although it probably was quite shocking and unbelievable at the time.

In any case, I found the whole native Australian handling quite interesting especially as an Australian. A lot of what's written now would portray all of this under a sinister cloud to make it absolutely clear to the reader that the author was not racist. It's somewhat of a national pastime here. There is no pontification and I found the lack of agenda quite exhilarating.
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Old 02-24-2013, 07:20 AM   #28
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Well, I have been thinking why I found this book " old fashioned".

The casual racism is one of the things that led me think this. I grew up, was brought up wth the same casual racism. That was rather a part of life then, and though I never questioned it at the time, I didn't share it of course. So, when reading this book I hardly noticed it, wasn't bothered by it, as I somehow expected it, being a book from the fifties.

The other thing is the omniscient presence of the narrator. Again, this didn't bothered me and I "expected" it as well, being brought up by strict religious parents with a God who was said to "see all, even the tiniest hair on your head". So, such a narrator would be acceptable for me.

These two things goes to show, for me that is, how initial upbringing can influence a view on book, rather than a subsequent academic education. Interesting......
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Old 02-24-2013, 09:06 AM   #29
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The problem with the racial discrimination which is certainly implied in A Town Like Alice and the contrasting abilities of Jean to cleverly push just the right buttons to use the Malayan Islamic sexism against the men themselves in the building of the well for the benefit of women is interesting. Perhaps it derives from the possibility that writers--and the characters they create--may sometimes unconsciously compartmentalize their values in an odd way. Jack London was a believer in social equality--but this didn’t extend to racial equality.

<snip>

To return to the topic and book at hand, I suppose it is possible that Shute was completely unaware of the racism in that latter part of the novel and was reacting to built-in stereotypes. If so, it still weakens the book for a modern reader.
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Yes, that's the one incident where I felt she actually seemed to be expressing an attitude on the matter. It was mainly shock and disbelief - although it probably was quite shocking and unbelievable at the time.
My reaction is that the racism in the Australia portion is that, unfortunately, it really was unconscious. Shute went to great pains to show Jean as understanding in the Malaya portion of the book, so the contrast is telling to me.

I know it's outside the purlieus of this story, but think about Jean's prewar life in Malaya. The situation with the white rancher and his wife must have been fairly common on the rubber plantations in Malaya, although most of the interracial couples wouldn't have been married, and the woman and any children would have been abandoned if the rancher went back to England. In any case, Jean would have been well aware of it even if she didn't meet the men and their women socially. So why the shock and dismay in Australia? Especially since this seems to be a far better situation according to the morals of the time. The couple was married and the rancher wasn't leaving. The key element has to be race. So either it's because Shute has a different reaction to miscegenation with Asians or he just wasn't thinking about the implications of his story; I suspect some of both.

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In any case, I found the whole native Australian handling quite interesting especially as an Australian. A lot of what's written now would portray all of this under a sinister cloud to make it absolutely clear to the reader that the author was not racist. It's somewhat of a national pastime here. There is no pontification and I found the lack of agenda quite exhilarating.
Well, yes. There is nothing more dreary than self-conscious political correctness and when it's retroactive it's even worse. It didn't bother me to read it and it wasn't unexpected in a book of its time, but when an otherwise perfect and noble character like Jean displays an unintended by the author but nonetheless serious flaw in her nature, it's offputting. Had Jean been less of a paragon it wouldn't have been as annoying.

Again, I didn't mind the racism as part of the story, but the book itself just isn't very good. We're not talking Merchant of Venice territory here. Alice, ironically, reads to me like typical book club fare of half a decade ago; it's dated and I don't think it deserves to be read as literature, although it has some interest as sociology. Books and most other matters of art and taste seem to go through a trajectory--current to dated. The issue is whether it emerges as classic or just period or is entirely forgotten. At best, Alice is period and it's good enough of that ilk. The story holds your attention.
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Old 02-24-2013, 11:42 AM   #30
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Books and most other matters of art and taste seem to go through a trajectory--current to dated. The issue is whether it emerges as classic or just period or is entirely forgotten. At best, Alice is period and it's good enough of that ilk. The story holds your attention.
That is certainly a fair assessment. Thank you for sharing it.

In fact, Shute is lucky to have survived as well as he has. Some of the A.M. & C.N. Williamson "travel" novels {available in the Mobile Read ebook library} have suffered the fate of being "forgotten"--even though some are quite good stories and were best sellers in the Edwardian and Georgian periods and were made into {silent} films.

Last edited by fantasyfan; 02-24-2013 at 04:44 PM.
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