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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Discuss it with me

I’m interested to hear what you think, so please tell me in a comment.

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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 (10)

  1. Susannah Fullerton

    I think most readers agree with you that the first half of the book is the best and certainly the most gripping. However, I have to admit I also loved the second half and felt it gave a fascinating picture of an incredibly remote part of Australia. The casual racism and the sexism remind us that things have improved, even if they still have a way to go, and the book made me feel incredibly grateful to be living in a city adn not in the really remote outback of Australia.

  2. Gaby Meares

    I was really in two minds about A Town like Alice. I found the first half enthralling, but the second part set in Australia was so slow! I found Shute’s writing quite flat and it read like a shopping list in some parts (in my humble opinion!).
    However, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read it, and your notes certainly added to the experience.

  3. Susannah Fullerton

    I have had so many positive comments about this book. People have really enjoyed reading or rereading it. You are lucky to have been to some of the places in Malaysia. I watched the Bryan Brown film version again and enjoyed that, though it didn’t really do full justice to the novel. There was an article in the SMH recently about Bryan brown and he said it was one of his favourites amongst all the films he has made and he even named his son Joe in tribute to that character. I listened to the audio version and it was so well done, and several friends also loved it. I gave it to my son when he was going on a long car trip and he looked dubious, but came home totally converted.

  4. Melvyn Dickson

    Thanks for including this fine book in the program. It is decades since I read it first. I remember the 1950s well so understand something of the culture back then, although I grew up in New Zealand. I have even flown in a Dakota! In recent retired years we have visited Malaysia and travelled all around Australia so we have been through most of the towns Janet goes through so I often had the smug feeling “I know that place”. Most of course the towns I have visited are far bigger than in the 1950s, except perhaps Daly Waters! I found the book hard to put down and became quite involved in the characters. The casual racism jars these days, but I suppose Shute was writing the culture as he observed it. Thanks again.

  5. Susannah Fullerton

    Oh my goodness, that brings back memories! I also read and loved Sara Dane in the 1970s. I don’t know that I ever saw the mini-series though.
    I’m so glad you enjoyed A Town Like Alice. it has proved a popular choice.

  6. Louise

    Today I finished A Town Like Alice. First time I’ve read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. I agree with leaving the racists remarks intact. I have also just finished reading Gone With the Wind which contains many racist comments etc. Hiding history doesn’t help the future
    Believe it or not but I purchased the DVD of Sara Dane last week I read It as a teenager in the late 70’s and loved it.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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