Nevil Shute - A Town Like Alice

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.

“Probably more people have shed tears over the last page of A Town Like Alice than about any other novel in the English language… remarkable.”
― John Ezard, The Guardian

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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Featured image credit- Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice. Bryan Brown and Helen Morse in A Town Like Alice (1981),
Body image credit- Nevil Shute,
Body image credit- A Town Like Alice, first edition book cover, fair use,
Body image credit- Peter Finch & Virginia McKenna, A Town Like Alice, 1956 Vic Films,

Comments (4)

  1. Lois Cubbinll

    As it happens I have just started to read this again. I am a huge fan of Neville Shute’s: have most of his: my first purchase being A Far Country in 1952. Love being educated in Australia’s history, and, like you, think it’s necessary to consider our racist mistakes to not make the same mistakes in the future.
    I am reading “Esther” by Jessica North: true story of a Jewish convict to Sydney Cove. Reminiscent of Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin.
    Thank you for your blog.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am currently listening to his ‘Requiem for a Wren’ which I’ve never read before and am really enjoying it. I’m glad you agree with me about no banning such books because there is some racism.
      Gosh, I hadn’t thought about ‘Sara Dane’ for years, but remember loving it in my teens. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Sue Forbes

    Thanks Susannah
    Had a science teacher who was a big fan of the Norwegian aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute and Insisted we 14 yr olds read SLIDE RULE, liked it so much went onto Trustee from the Toolroom – I always remember these. I bought a town Like Alice about 50 years ago prior to a trip to NT but was too busy to read it – you have prompted me to dust off its yellow pages. There was also a song Ä town like Alice”” note Natasha Fullerton on the label – may be a distant relative

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for sharing your teacher story, Sue. Nevil Shute wasn’t Norwegian – his surname was Norway, but he dropped that when he started publishing, as he didn’t want his bosses to think he was ‘wasting’ his time writing novels.And thanks so much for sharing the song.

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