I have a very vivid recollection of being in my grandparent’s spare bedroom, 10 – 11 years old, sitting on their black and blue checkered sofa-bed, arguing with my father about Bryan Brown. We’d just seen him in a movie and I adamantly claimed that Bryan Brown had also been in A Town Like Alice, while my father strongly argued that he had definitely not. In the end, we made a bet and I won a trip to the movies for me and my siblings. I thought Brian Brown was rather hot, and, I think, to prolong the experience of him in A Town Like Alice I went out and borrowed the book, though I have no clear recollection of reading it until when I was around 16.
Re-reading it now -mumble-cough- years later I found that I remember most of it quite well, which didn’t ruin the experience in the slightest. It is still a great book, though the love story between Jean Paget, a British shorthand typist and heiress to a sizable estate, and Joe Harman, Australian ringer doesn’t make me go all gooey anymore. In fact I am not sure I would even call it a romance, as the cover claims it to be. Yes, love absolutely drives the actions of the Jean and Joe, but it is also a story of war and hardship and courage and kindness, and it features a strong and strong-willed woman who is not afraid to take risks. A rarity even in 2013.
The story is told by Noel Strachan, a solicitor from London, and trustee of the estate that Jean inherits. Jean is quite overwhelmed by her inheritance, but ultimately decides to travel back to Malaya where she was a prisoner of war during WWII and where she briefly met Joe Harman. In Malaya she learns that Joe is still alive and she flies to Australia to find him. When I was a kid the book started a whole Australia-mania that I have never truly let go.
I was actually surprised how well I found Jean to be written, even though the book only offers a second-hand view of her. The only thing that really rings false is Nevil Shute’s portrayal of Jean’s attitude to sex. Times were different, and sex was viewed very differently back then. I do get it, but there are a few phrases in the book, that makes me think that Nevil Shute wrote them with an idolized version of how women were supposed to be in mind and not so much how they would be in reality. Jean gives Joe almost total control over her willingness to have sex, as if she doesn’t want sex for herself, but would submit to it for his sake. I don’t believe for a second, that even as sexually suppressed as women might have been back in the late forties, that Jean wouldn’t feel aroused when making out with a man that she loves and respects, on a virtually deserted island far from prying eyes. But of course, that is just my opinion, I wouldn’t really have a clue.
Reading A Town Like Alice with 2013 eyes also reveal one major issue with this book, one that I probably wouldn’t have thought about at all, if I had read it back in 1950, when it was written. It is full of jarring derogatory phrases about aboriginals, not in a deliberate malicious way, but as if it is standard, normal, whites are great, abo’s are second class. They don’t talk english well, they don’t cook well, intermarriage is weird, segregation is a must. You get the picture. I had a hard time ignoring it, but made a conscious choice to not let it sway my opinion of the book. It is wrong and mind-boggling stupid, but back in 1950, that was how the world was.
My issues aside, I still think it is a great book, and I will probably re-read it again in a couple of years.
Next in line is The Danger by Dick Francis