I first heard of Nevil Shute’s A Town like Alice (1950) when I was a schoolboy, and long before I read it I was fascinated by the title. How, I wondered, could a town possibly be like a person? When I eventually discovered that ‘Alice’ was short for Alice Springs, a remote settlement in the Australian Outback, I was still baffled – for from what I knew of the plot, the novel’s main focus was wartime Malaya. And though I have now read it half a dozen times, and come to love its combination of far-flung romance, desperate endurance and old-fashioned stoicism, there remains a conundrum at the heart of it which continues to tantalize me, like a stubborn morsel of crabmeat wedged in the corner of a claw.
The dust-jacket of my second edition proclaims Shute’s gifts as a ‘storyteller’ – which usually implies ‘not much of a stylist’. It’s true that he set little store by poetic description, but one thing he did understand was tone, and perhaps his most inspired decision in writing A Town like Alice was his choice of narrator: a dry old stick of a solicitor called Noel Strachan. A tale as dramatic as this, Shute’s instinct must have told him, requires no flights of fancy or embellishment. Strachan begins with a slow, pedantic account of how he came to draw up the will of a Scottish invalid called Douglas Macfadden. On Macfadden’s death in 1948, Strachan has the task of tracking down the heir to his substantial estate, who proves to be a 27-year-old typist living in Ealing.
Jean Paget is good-looking and level-headed, but apparently unremarkable; she will not be drawn on her wartime experiences, beyond saying that she spent three years as ‘a sort of prisoner-of war’ in Malaya, where she grew up. Strachan, by now a widower in his early seventies, is attracted to her – though he won’t admit it – and starts taking her to the opera and exhibitions. When she finally tells him her story, she begins in typical Shut
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