This is one of those books that languished on my shelves for years before I finally got around to reading it. I bought it because I’d Heard Of It And Ought To Read It, at a time when such things mattered. (OK, they still matter, but not as much as they used to. And no book matters if I don’t love it 50 pages in, these days. It’s straight to the charity shop if it doesn’t grab me. I’ve even been known to put books in the bin – sob! – if I think they are that bad, and I don’t want to be responsible for someone else reading it.)
Anyway. I finally got around to it.
Set in England, Malaya and Australia in the early twentieth century, this is the story of Jean Paget, an ex-pat living in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. Caught up in the war, she becomes leader of a group of women and children prisoners forced to march through the jungle, and on the way gets help from Joe Harman, an Australian prisoner of war. After the war, the two meet again.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what’s so compelling about this book. Yes, it’s a great story, but there’s something about the protagonists that’s really special. Jean and Joe are ordinary people who, when put into terrible situations, become strong and filled with compassion and grace. There’s something heartwarming – in the best, non-cloying sense of the word – about this book. It’s the sort of book that I keep on recommending to people, but can’t bear to actually let out of my sight. It’s a little early to say, but I think it will become one of the books that I go back to and re-read every couple of years, for the sheer joy of it.
You can buy ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute here.