A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute chronicles the life of its principal character Jean Paget, an Englishwoman who, along with other English people, was taken prisoner during the Japanese occupation of Malaya. Presently, Jean is a shorthand typist in England, reminiscing about her experience in Malaya and deciding what to do with the money she inherits from an uncle.
If I had told you what I thought of this book after reading 50% of it, I’d have been ecstatic about my liking for it. Some parts dragged on but it was still very easy read and I cared a lot about what happened to the characters. I was about 75% into the book when the thought came to me: “Wait a minute; nothing’s happening.” There isn’t much conflict to speak of and it read merely like an article about a character rather than a work of fiction. When I finally finished reading it, I decided that I enjoyed it enough to give it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, but I was very disappointed by the way it turned out. Although it received a lot of good reviews, there were still those who didn’t think too highly of the book, and I can’t blame them at all. I see where they’re coming from.
I’m a sucker for romance and, at the first sign of it, I’m hooked. But A Town Like Alice seems to me to be a book that tries to keep its masculine cool in the face of romance. It refuses to be completely swallowed by the passion such that it presents the romance as a fact, lets the reader bask in the emotion for a little bit, and then moves on the other — better — business at hand, the affection between two characters becoming a backdrop for whatever else is happening. It’s a story that can’t decide on its focus and seems to have shunned the editing out of unnecessary parts.
However, this is where this book amazes me. Despite all these flaws that I have just written down, it’s still a work of art that leaves a great impact in me, whether to feel warm about a romance, pity about an unrequited love, or sadness about war and distance. I am, as usual, left feeling abandoned, like a lover I have spent some time with had decided he wants to go off on an adventure, never to be heard from again. (There’s always the fact that I can reread the book, but the first time, as all readers know, is different. There can never be another first time.)
What does an abandoned sucker do? Why, cling to what’s left, of course. What’s left, what there can be a first time of again, is the TV/movie dramatisation of the book. I was able to get my hands on the miniseries starring Helen Morse and Bryan Brown. The miniseries is almost faithful to the book, although there are details in it that I thought I must have missed in the book. The last part’s done differently; the filmmakers decided that, enough with the macho stuff, let’s celebrate love, and there is a wedding. To me, it was a sufficient closure to a two-day relationship with A Town Like Alice. I feel like I can move on now.