Friday, January 17, 2014

Nevil Shute's Little-known Classic: A Town Like Alice

Nevil Shute was born 115 years ago today. While most people have not heard of him, he remains one of Britain's most acclaimed and revered writers. His was born Nevil Shute Norway (17 January 1899 - 12 January 1960) and rose to become a popular novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He described in the in an anonymous epigram in one of his books how engineering and design could improve human life: "An engineer is a man who can make something for five bob that any bloody fool can make for a quid!"

He adopted the name Nevil Shute as his pen name and wrote several novels including On the Beach and The Rainbow and the Rose. He his best known for his novel, A Town Like Alice (1950), a World War 2 novel set in Malaya and Australia. The protagonists Jean Paget and Joe Harman are based upon people whom Shute met, both of whom suffered heroically as prisoners of war and who later fell in love redeemed their lost years.

Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards,
real-life inspiration for Joe Harman
Shute based the character of Harman on Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, an Australian veteran of the Malayan campaign, whom Shute met in 1948 at a station (ranch) in Queensland. Edwards had been crucified for 63 hours by Japanese soldiers on the Burma Railway. He had later escaped execution a second time, when his "last meal" of chicken and beer could not be obtained. Shute appropriates both episodes in the novel.

The novel was ranked in 1998 by the Modern Library ranked 17th on The Reader's List of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the novel contains the earliest known use of the word dicey: "He.. made a tight, dicey turn round in the gorge with about a hundred feet to spare."

Shute possesses a steady narrative voice and drives the plot relentlessly forward, though his plots are often complicated. His magic makes them plausible and wrenching.

Bryan Brown and Helen Morse in Masterpiece Theatre's
wildly successful mini-series (1981) A Town Like Alice

From A Town Like Alice [the narrator as an old man remembering his friends in Australia]:
 "I suppose it is because I have lived rather a restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes. I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf Country, dreaming of blazing sunshine, of poddy dodging and black stockriders, of Cairns and of Green Island. Of a girl that I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again, that holds so much of my affection."

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