Home / Books / A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute | Book Review

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute | Book Review

All readers are asked at one point in time or another why they read? Answers vary from reader to reader but I think all readers find that the books serve as an easiest medium that will take you away from one life and let you into another world in no time. There is a reason why some books survive for generations and still stay with readers long after their writers are gone. They capture a world within its covers so beautifully, that readers keep going back to these books to experience times past and learn of people that have come and gone before them.

Nevil Shute is a well-known author loved by fans all around the world. He lived through the world at wars and made a transition after the World War II from rainy England to sunny Australia. One of his best known works is A Town Like Alice.

Book Title : A Town Like Alice
Author :
Published by : Macmillan Collector's Library ( 2018)
Vintage Classics ( 3 September 2009)
Avarang Books ( 13 February 2023)
# of Pages : 390 (Paperback) 358; 518 KB (Kindle EBook) 618 Minutes (Audiobook)
Purchase Link(s) :

The book was first published in 1950 and re-published in 2018 in a lovely pocket book format as part of Macmillan collector’s library editions. Recently I had chance to read this book and here is a review for the book on behalf of Team ThinkerViews.

Book Cover:

Let us take a look at the cover page of this book.

This book has various versions, each having a different cover. What I am embedding here is one of them.

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute | Book Cover

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute | Book Cover

This coverpage lets the readers know that the setting of the story is sun-baked tropical islands with blue sea in the distance and waving palm fronds in the background. We see shadowy figure of a western woman clad in asian garments and carrying a baby. We also see men working or standing on the road.

Once you read the book, you could tell where the cover page fits in the story. While it may not attract casual browsers much, the fans of the author will pick up the book.


Noel Strachan is a reputable solicitor in London, who is called in by Mr. Macfadden to alter his will. This reclusive gentleman tells Mr. Strachan about the family of his sister and sets up a trust as part of leaving all his wealth to his sister and her children. Soon after, Mr. Strachan loses his wife and then forgets all about this will. Until getting a call many years later when Mr. Macfadden passes away.

And so he looks for the heirs and finds Jean Paget, the niece of Mr. Macfadden. Jean is a lovely woman of about twenty seven years in age and as a trustee Mr. Strachan gets to know her. Her mother and her brother both died during the war years and Jean has been living quietly in London since end of the war, working away as a shorthand typist.

And now that she doesn’t need to work for living, what would she do? She wants to dig a well in Malaya (now known as Malaysia). And with this strange request Mr. Strachan learns of an even stranger tale of the courage, fortitude and resourcefulness of this young woman as she tells us of her time trapped as a war prisoner in Malaya, witnessing horrors of the war that have left her scarred- possibly for life.

And so Jean travels to Malaya and goes to the village where she spent years during the war. She gets a well and a washhouse built. But she also learns news about a man she thought she had lost forever in the war, and so now she must go to Australia in search of him. As fate would have it – Joe Harman comes knocking on Mr. Strachan’s door in England. He is looking for Jean, but why has he waited for six years to find her?

As eventually, these two meet each other for the first time outside a war zone after years, they must begin afresh to know each other. They also need to seriously think if they can make a life for themselves in the Australian outback, which is a world away from the life she has known in England.

Could they build not only a family, but a town out of this inheritance that will become a legacy?

Views and Reviews:

As you may think from the storyline above, the book has quite a wide canvas and could almost be separated into three parts: first part where we get to know Noel Strachan – our narrator and Jean Paget and Jean’s time in Malaya during the war, second part as Jean and Joe travel halfway around the world to find each other again and third part where Jean discovers the Australian way of life.

Noel Strachan right away inspires readers as a truthful, reliable narrator. An elderly gentleman, who is quite alone and comes to know this girl that he falls in love with – forty years too late as he says himself. We know he is going to be a father / mentor figure looking out for her as she navigates the world of inheritance. The author does a great job of establishing his narrator in a very short span and we continue to travel with him through the story and witness the events through his eyes.

Then there is Jean. It will be very difficult for readers not to fall in love with her. She is bright, funny, resourceful and pragmatic. And yet she feels so deeply for this man she briefly meets in the war and never forgets what he went through for them. She doesn’t forget the kindness of the Malayan village and wants to return what she can, and she travels to an unknown continent to check on the welfare of the man who had been friendly and kind to her during worst of times.

She is not fanciful in love. She wants to be sure that she can make a life in this strange country before she pledges for  marriage. In spite of the fact that she has not loved anyone else in the six years she thought Joe was dead. Because a marriage takes work. To build a solid family, both partners need to know what they are signing up for. Making each other give up a way of life will only end up in resentment. In Jean, Nevil Shute gives us a strength of character that shines throughout the book.

And so, her partner needs to be equally strong. Joe Harman’s character is based on a real-life person Herbert Edwards, whom the writer met in 1948. Edwards survived tortures and beatings including being nailed to a tree for 63 hours in the war and went back to Australia at the end of the war to take up his older life. Joe is lovable, not perfect by any means, but kind-hearted, red-blooded Australian who makes his life with back-breaking work raising cattle on farmlands in a dry country. He falls in love with the spirit of Jean, and never forgets her.

The first part of the book is the most emotional with the horrors of the World War II, as a band of women and children traipse through tropical jungle, swamplands and villages while battling with hunger, malnutrition, illnesses and death.

There was something in the attitude of people, even tiny children, to their illness that told when death was coming to them, a listlessness, as if they were too tired to make the effort to live. By that time they had all grown hardened to the fact of death. Grief and mourning had ceased to trouble them; death was a reality to be avoided and fought, but when it came – well, it was just one of those things.

But the way the author tells us of this war time is also a reflection of the times the book was written in. The war was fresh in their minds – the author and the readers. The books written today talk about the horrors of both World Wars much more evocatively, because we have the buffer of time while looking at that era. While this book reflects the time when people were trying to put the horrors of war behind them.

A lot of readers may feel that the book could have ended with Jean and Joe finding each other back, an end more fitting for a romance between these two characters. But the author was supportive of the building spirit of the times and that is why the book starts with an inheritance and a journey to find some use for it towards the betterment of not only self but others.

To some extent, the transition from old world to new world is part of that. Leave the rainy days, queues for rations behind you and move to the land of opportunity. Challenges there are aplenty and no infrastructure and civilities that you get in European cities. But with hard work and resources, the book wants us to believe, that much can be built.

When Jean first comes to Wilstown, she can see the ghost of a town designed during the times of gold rush. It is a characteristic of colonies like Australia and Americas that people followed to go where the gold was – actual or in form of any other treasure.

To visualise this derelict little place as a town with eight thousand inhabitants, or thirty thousands; a place with seventeen hotels and houses thickly clustered in the angles of the streets. Whoever had planned the layout had dreamed a great dream; with people streaming in to take up claims and the population doubling itself every few days, the planner had had some excuse for dreaming of a New York of the Gulf of Carpentria. Now all that remained was a network of rectangular tracks where once there had been streets of wooden houses; odd buildings alone remained among this network to show what had been the dream.

In a poetic justice sort of way, Jean’s inheritance was made by his grandfather in the Australian gold mines, and she puts it back into that country to build a town that creates opportunities for more people to make their fortunes. And that’s where the name of the book comes from. The consensus around Jean is how everyone loves the town of Alice Springs – Alice for short, and that becomes model for the dream that Jean and Joe have for their own little community – to build a town like Alice.

It was a genuine pleasure to read this book again and to find a story that displays self-sacrifice, hard work, duty, courage and kindness through its characters – qualities that we need more than ever today. However, the book also contains expressions and sentiments of the times and the way the indigenous people of Australia are portrayed, and the attitudes of those times are also a reminder that not all was well in the land of Oz for all its residents.


A well-loved book that will take you to a journey in the 1940s-1950s as you navigate through war to come out on the other end to build something that will last….

ThinkerViews Rating:

Around 8 stars out of 10.

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