I know someone who moved to Australia, married an Australian, and named her daughter Alice. She’s a big fan of this book. With an endorsement like that, I’ve been meaning to read this novel for years. When I finally got my hands on a copy, it took me only days to make it through.
The book is extremely readable and the main character, Jean, is very likeable. She’s tough and sympathetic and smart, without seeming realistic. She’s an ordinary young lady in extraordinary circumstances and most of her decisions and actions are easily understandable.
The story is narrated by Jean’s lawyer, who first gets to know her when she becomes the unlikely inheritor of a small fortune from her great-uncle. The great-uncle, having a somewhat poor view of women, leaves Jean the money in trust until she is thirty-five since she is unmarried. Never mind that she’s a smart, independent woman who has already survived World War Two in Malaysia. Our narrator learns Jean’s story of her experience as a captive in Malaya and then goes on to tell the rest of her adventures in Australia.
This makes the book feel almost more like two or three books. Which isn’t to say it felt long or unwieldy. The sections are each fascinating and fit together cohesively. We see Jean’s character grow and develop in interesting and truthful ways.
For me, the most interesting part of Jean’s story was her experience during the war. While living in Malaya, she is taken captive by the invading Japanese forces. While the men are sent to a prison camp, there is no such camp for women and children and so these captives are forced to march. They travel from town to town, always sent on to the next place because no one wants to deal with them or take responsibility for them. There is no where to send women and children and so they are constantly on the move. Many of them die, from disease or exhaustion or a combination of both. It’s a tragic and fascinating tale and the Afterword informs us that it was inspired by a woman that Shute himself knew.
While on this forced March, Jean meets an Australian. Their interactions are brief but they are drawn to help each other until Joe Harman, the Australian, makes an unexpected sacrifice. After the war, Jean decides to use her new money to thank the Malay village that saved her and the other women. In doing so she learns something unexpected about Joe and travels to Australia, unwittingly beginning a new and unexpected life.
Overall, I thought Shute did a fine job of fitting in a lot of story into a normal-sized novel. I think the choice to have a narrator somewhat removed from the main plot and characters was a smart one as it makes the summary-style of story-telling feel more natural. At times it felt like either the author or the narrator did not have a good grasp on what Jean must have felt. She is stoic and very British about everything and I would have liked to see a bit more of her own thoughts and emotions. One example that stood out for me was that during her time as a prisoner, Jean takes on the care of a ten-month-old boy named Robin. His mother is weak and eventually dies. Jean cares for this boy until the end of the war and then returns him to his father (a man she knew before the war). It’s never mentioned again. I found it almost impossible to believe that anyone could take on the care of an infant, care for that child for almost four years, and then give him back and not be deeply affected by it. There’s even a part later in the book where Jean rides a horse with the same name as the boy and it’s never brought up! The novel was first released in 1950 and so I do wonder if this was some years before anyone was realizing the longterm affects of wartime trauma or if Shute just doesn’t understand that some people get attached to children.
Either way, the strengths outweigh the flaws and I’ll be interested to read more by Shute.