When I first read Bridget Jones’ Diary, I remember being intensely frustrated by the title character. Why, I wondered, if she wanted to lose weight, quit smoking, and cut back on the amount of alcohol she drank, didn’t she commit to taking positive action towards one or more of these goals? Why, if she hated her job so much, didn’t she at least start looking for another one? So she got her man in the end: big deal. Why, as a modern woman, couldn’t she be her own hero?
The heroine of A Town Like Alice, Jean Paget, is no Bridget Jones. How a man writing in the late 1940s could create such a thoroughly independent and heroic woman is beyond me, but Nevil Shute did it. Inspired, loosely, by actual events, Shute’s story begins in England, where lawyer Noel Strachan must inform Jean that she has inherited a legacy (the novel was published in America under the title The Legacy) from a somewhat bigoted uncle who has left her unable to access the capital until she is 35 because he believed that a woman could not make solid financial decisions. Over the course of the book Jean will prove him completely wrong, but first…
We flash back to Malaya, in WWII, when a young Jean Paget is among a group of women and children taken prisoner by the Japanese. Marched from village to village, many of them succumb to hunger and disease but the resourceful, Malay-speaking Jean becomes their unofficial leader and eventually manages to convince a local village chief to accept the surviving women and children into his village on the understanding that they will work to earn their keep. Fast forward to 1950, and Jean is determined to use her sudden modest windfall (the first of the dividends from her inheritance) to provide the village with a gift in return for their kindness. Remembering the difficulties the village women faced in washing clothing and fetching water for their households, she decides to convince the (male) elders that the gift they really want is a well in the centre of the village – a gift from women, for women.
There is a love story involved, and the gentleman in question (about whom I don’t want to say too much because it’s a major spoiler) is impressed by Jean’s intelligence, courage, resourcefulness and generosity far more than her looks. For her part, she’s willing to move heaven and earth in order to be with the man she loves – or at least, change the entire economic destiny of a remote down-and-out Australian town to make it more like the bustling Alice Springs, hence the title.
Were it not for it being mentioned on a BBC ‘Hundred Best Reads’ list I would have completely passed this book by, and I’m very, very glad I didn’t because Jean Paget is one of my favourite fictional characters, and definitely someone I’d want on my team should the zombie apocalypse come. Seriously, read this book!