Top positive review
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Wonderful book which works on many levels
on July 2, 2002
Too few of Nevil Shute's books are in print in this country--fortunately, this is one of the better one.
When an old Scottish man dies, London solicitor Noel Strachan learns that his sole heir is a young woman named Jean Paget. Strachan acts as her trustee, dispensing money as needed under the will, but the old lawyer soon finds himself falling for the young lady. Before Strachan has done more than shown her London's culture, Paget is off to Malaya to repay the village where she stayed during WWII by digging a well. She convinces Strachan to release the money by telling the story (based on real life) of how she and other women were held prisoner by the Japanese, but eventually found refuge in a small village. Before they go there, they encounter a young Australian, Joe Harmon, who is crucified for stealing food for them. When Paget returns to Malaya, she learns that Harmon survived and returned to Australia. Meanwhile, Harmon has gone to England to seek her, having thought she was married when they met in Malaya. They eventually meet up in Australia (Strachan, out of his own love for Jean, has gently attempted to frustrate the meeting). Jean, determined to make her home in Harmon's home area, sets out to make the godforsaken town into "A Town Like Alice"--a modern town like Alice Springs.
It is a fascinating story. But overlooked in every review I read is the role of the old solicitor, Noel Strachan, who finds himself in love with Jean some decades too late, and is unable to serve as a rival to Joe Harmon. He soon surrenders his unexpressed (even to himself) love out of regard for Jean's interest. His unrequited love, lends a poignant note to the book.
There are no villains. Even the dark characters, like the Japanese who crucified Harmon, are seen as human beings doing the best they can. The fact that the acts they do can be terrible do not alter the fact that they are human beings, and they are painted as such.
Harmon and the other Australian characters are not painted as well as the other characters; perhaps Shute, who had only recently emigrated to Australia, was afraid of erring in characterizations.
Still, a fine book that made a great miniseries.