In August we will be closer to home with Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. Shute had just moved to Australia when he published this book in 1950. Do you know which Aussie town is the model for Willstown in the novel? What does Shute have to say about the position of women in that era, and how does he celebrate entrepreneurship and a sense of community?
A remarkable story of survival
It has romance, suffering, hardship and determined achievement. It tells a remarkable story of survival, and it has become an Australian classic, even though only about half the book is actually set in Australia. I find Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice a very moving story. I love the faithful 1981 TV adaptation which was made from it, and I really love the superb audio recording, read by Robin Bailey. Jean and Joe are such likeable characters, Shute’s style is so easy to read, and to know that some of the story was based on real events adds to its appeal.
I doubt there are many of you who first read this as soon as it was published seventy years ago. I suspect many of you read it when the film or the TV series came out? I read the novel when living in the UK, before I had ever been to Australia, and then when I moved to Australia, I borrowed a video of the TV series from my local library.
An Australia of seventy years ago
On a first reading of A Town Like Alice you focus on the exciting story, but when you re-read the novel, you slow down to enjoy the details and its picture of Australia seventy years ago. So much has changed – much of it for the better – but you can still recognise outback towns of today in the descriptions of the buildings, the willingness of locals to help each other in an emergency, and the resilience needed to live in inhospitable and lonely places. I have loved learning more about the background, the author and the real stories which inspired it as I prepared this Guide.
A Town Like Alice was published in 1950 and generally, I think it has stood the test of time really well. When I first read the book as a teenager, I failed to notice the racism in it, it reflects so clearly the way Aboriginal people were treated in 1950s Australia that you get a strong sense of how taken for granted racist attitudes were. Things are certainly different today.
There are calls at the moment to ban books and films that are not politically correct. I am 100% against this and I feel it is extremely important to read novels which depict racism so that we can learn from the lessons of the past. You may disagree, but the place of fiction in giving us history lessons is, in my view, vital. As writer George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. I believe that fiction helps us to avoid that mistake.
I do hope that if you are reading this for the first time that you too love its gripping tale. If you are revisiting it, I hope a re-reading brings an increased appreciation of its excellent story-telling and that it makes you think about how much Australia has changed in the last seventy years.
Join me in an outback adventure in this romantic and stirring novel.
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