A Town Like Alice/The Legacy
Reviewed by DANIEL GEORGE
Noel Strachan, an ageing and widowed solicitor, had almost forgotten his client Douglas Macfadden when, in 1948, he received a telegram announcing his death. Refreshing his memory, he made a journey to Ayr, and found that the estate he was to administer amounted to a quite substantial sum. It had been left in trust with peculiar conditions, one being that if the estate passed through the death of her brother, to a young woman named Jean Paget the trust would continue until she had reached the age of thirty-five. When found, working as a secretary in a leather-bag factory, she proved to be twenty-six, a capable young woman, but naturally taken aback at learning that she had inherited £53,000 - or would, in 1956.
Professionally interested, Noel Strachan soon becomes personally interested in Jean. He is a lonely man, living in a flat in Buckingham Gate, and taking his meals at his Pall Mall club. She continues working at her secretarial job, but is induced to relax to the extent of accompanying him to Kew Gardens, to the opera, to art galleries and exhibitions of paintings. Her lack of enthusiasm for these polite entertainments betrays the fact that she is preoccupied with a scheme of her own. One night she announces: 'I want to go back to Malaya, Mr. Strachan. To dig a well.'
At this point the real story swings into action. It is Jean's story of her experiences in Malaya when, after the invasion, she was one of a party of about forty women and children who, rounded up by the Japanese, were kept continually on the move. They trudged from place to place. Stricken by illness or utter exhaustion, some of the women and children died. Of the total number less than half survived, and these were saved by Jean's courage, endurance and enterprise. In one village they received help in the way of food and encouragement from some Australian prisoners of war - from one in particular. Finally, disowned by the Japanese authorities, they settled down at Kuala Telang to work in the paddy fields, Jean having prevailed upon the headman to sanction their presence there. It was hard but healthy work. One job, however, they found irksome - fetching drinking water from a spring a mile from the village.
Having the means now to repay the kindness received from the women in Kuala Telang, Jean's idea is to provide them with a well. Noel Strachan, her solicitor who has become almost her guardian, cannot - indeed does not try to - dissuade her. He makes arrangements for her income to reach her (the capital remaining intact), and sees her off. He had sent flowers to her cabin. 'English flowers,' he said. 'Just to remind you to come back to England soon.' But he has a premonition that she will never come back. . .
She never does come back, but she has the best of good reasons for staying away. What takes her to Australia is as much a surprise for her as it is for the reader. It divides her life, as it divides the story, into two parts. The first is harrowing, though not unrelieved by cheerfulness; the second is of unusual interest - unusual because life in the 'outback' of Australia has, oddly enough, not been made so familiar to us as life and death in Malaya.
We can at least realise that this novel - so exciting, so eventful, so moving, and, in due proportion, entertaining - is a parable: constructive effort is possible even at the very edge of despair. No new moral, this, to adorn a tale; and it is not unduly stressed. It is noticeable only because 'Never lose heart' is the ultimate theme of most of Nevil Shute's novels, and this, I think, is his best.