By Jason Flowers
Sheffield Hallam University student Jason Flowers encounters the novelist Nevil Shute for the first time. Nevil Shute was hugely popular with our original readers, all born in the mid-20th century, and it’s great to get a 21st century view.
Nevil Shute was a new author to me. My previous knowledge of his writing and literary career was merely an idea of the novels he penned and a small bit of trivia. Perhaps this is why I selected A Town Like Alice as my novel for this blog; the title itself seemed embedded in my brain but I had never read the book. I decided to read the novel as I would if I were reading it for pleasure and leave the introduction until I had finished the narrative to avoid spoilers. As such, I had no preconceptions of the book I was about to read. My first impressions of the writing style were positive. I found the way Shute established his characters clearly and set out a few characteristics for each engaging and reader-friendly. I did however note that that the book was very much of its time first noticing this as a quirk of a 21st-century reader seeing the First World War described as the 1914-1918 war. However, as the novel progresses these quirks of antiquity became somewhat more unpleasant as ethnicity was often used to diminish certain characters and a very pro-colonialism view was evident. The same is true about the novel’s treatment of women. Despite the main character being a quite extraordinary woman her accomplishments are met with wonder by most of the characters, not because of their merit but because they were performed by a woman.
Aside from these elements that are not excused by the age of the book but can perhaps be understood, I was quite taken aback by the format of the novel. It struck me that the structure of the narrative was written perfectly to suit the medium of cinema. The opening chapter introduces our narrator and mode of viewing the tale, this narrator establishes his meeting with the story’s main character, said character then reveals the narrative’s problems to overcome via flashback, before we then see a resolution to the tale by the end. It therefore didn’t surprise me to see that the book was indeed made for cinema release six years after its publishing. Whilst impressed with the aptness of the book for adaptation it would be remiss to not comment on its merits as a piece of literature also. I have already mentioned the way that the book approaches ethnicity and gender jars a modern reader but on further research, the postcolonialism school of thought had its earliest roots in the ’60s but could be credited as late as 1978 with Edward Said’s Orientalism. So in viewing this novel as written significantly before issues such as postcolonialism were in the consciousness of the literary critics and the feminist theory was more concerned with the politics of female authorship than the treatment of women in prose, it is possible to view the problematic issues in this novel as a relic of an era without concerns for these issues. As such the book’s strengths lie in its characterization and relationships between characters. It speaks to the writing that we can witness a hopeless pilgrimage across Malaya and become accustomed to the frequent death of characters yet the death of Joe can still hit the reader so hard with its brutality.
Shute also imbues the novel with strong themes, perhaps the most significant being the resilience of humanity to the horrors that generation witnessed during the two world wars. The wartime experience clings to this book like a shadow and even once the war is over in the narrative the characters are still so intrinsically linked to it that their time during that period seems more significant to their identity than their actions in the present. Whilst reading I was drawn to thinking about the label that appeared often in the news lately with the passing of Sir Captain Tom Moore – the greatest generation – and I think this book does compliment that description well. Although I think the book would suggest that it should rather be the greatest generations plural because we observe a shifting in generations between our narrator Strachan and our main character Jean. However both share similar experiences across their respective world wars and both show a huge admiration for the other.
As I finished the book I turned to the introduction I had earlier skipped and was surprised to discover that the trek across Malaya was in fact written based on the true story of a party of 80 European women forced to do the same journey. It offers an interesting reread of the journey these women undertook in the novel to understand that this unlikely plight was in fact based in regrettably true circumstances. With this final thought on the novel, I considered what the interviewees of Reading Sheffield might think of the work. I was not shocked that Nevil Shute appeared in a lot of the interviews and most had a very high opinion of his works in particular I noted that Chris F credited him as his favourite all-time author, and I think on the strength of that recommendation I’ll order Requiem for a Wren as my next read.