‘Oh my word.’

What a confused book. A Town Like Alice has been such an intriguing read. The writing had an easy flow to it and the story was certainly gripping, even though this decidedly is a book of two halves.

The first half deals with the history of Jean Paget, in which we follow her to Malaya under the Japanese occupation. The second half takes us on Jean’s journey to Australia, where she hopes to find out more about the man she whose death she believes she caused.

There is much to like about both parts of the story. Both parts present historical information (even tho fictionalised) to 20th century events. Both parts show how events shape a character and how a character can create change in turn. I loved how the story is tied back to the narration by a single elderly solicitor who both looks after the interests of his trustee but who also acknowledges the generational gaps between them.

However, it is with this assumption of a guardianship that the book also shows its age and its outdated attitudes. And with respect to the generational differences, this may even be the point of the book (one of them), to show how attitudes towards women have changed, if only slightly (?) – Jean’s uncle didn’t believe an unmarried woman under 40 had sense enough to deal with money, her solicitor didn’t share this attitude but still presided over the trust fund in a patronising manner, Jean herself didn’t trust her ability (even tho she had already proven to be a very strong character) and it took encouragement for her to set up her own enterprise(s).

This is a part of the book that confused me, too. Jean is portrayed as such an indecisive character at times, yet, her actions leave no doubt about her ability to make choices.

Of course, the portrayal of aboriginal people and other people of non-white extraction is a reflection of the racism of the time that the book was written, and one of the reasons i didn’t like this book better. But there was something else that irked me: in the first part of the story, part of the message seemed to have been that the main character learned about how silly attitudes of cultural superiority are. In the second part of the book, this is somewhat forgotten or set aside. This may have been because the story was not told from Jean’s perspective entirely, but still it felt like an odd break in the story.

And don’t get me started on the love story part of the book. Some of the most ludicrous and chauvinist parts of the book are sold as “romance” – having a character covered in bruises after a “romantic” encounter, letting the character say it was her fault, and following this up with an engagement ….. it just did not gel. I’m seriously confused by Shute. Or maybe he was?

Anyway, The first half of the book is great, the second less so, which is mostly because the first half is a story in its own right and the second half takes away from it. Again, I’m seriously confused why Shute did this. Did he attempt an epic saga and fail?

I have no answer to this. What I have done, tho, is that I culled many a Shute title from my tbr.


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