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I picked this up last night and really couldn't put it down. Despite the instinctive racism (against Australian aborigines and Japanese, though the Malays get off rather better) and the resounding endorsement of Shute's firmly conservative values, I found Jean Paget a fascinating character - survivor and leader of a group of prisoners in Malaya during the second world war, then pursuing the man she loves and thought was dead to his home in Australia, then when she finds his home town is not the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, she decides to turn it into the sort of place she wants to spend the rest of her life, basically by using her unexpectedly inherited fortune to create a local economy based on employing the local young women. Shute is not exactly a progressive writer, but Jean Paget surely counts as a feminist protagonist even though not written by a feminist author; she challenges and to a certain extent gets around gender roles, particularly in the constrained social environment of 1940's Australia. Even if she does win all her wars, she suffers enough setbacks in the process to keep our sympathy, all told in Shute's crystal-clear, direct prose. I really enjoyed it.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 13th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
It's a very well-constructed novel. I recommend pairing it with Beyond the Black Stump for a very different, and much less romantic, view on the culture clash between the urban west and rural Australia.
Aug. 13th, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
I think Shute was economically conservative - he was a qualified aeronautical engineer and among other things worked on the R100 privately backed airship built in competition to the government-sponsored R101 which crashed on its maiden voyage - Shute's views in his autobioraphy (Slide Rule) were highly critical of the R101 construction.

I'm not sure that it is fair to regard Shute's works as containing instinctive racism. Given the vile acts of the Japanese during the 2nd World War (and before that in their invasion of China) - and the fact that, unlike the Germans in regard to the Nazis, the Japanese still seem to be somewhat in denial over their war crimes - Shute's portrayal of them seems fair. He portrays some of the women prisoners in the group - but not Jean Paget (who spoke Malay and got on well with the locals) - as being racists in their dealings with the Japanese and Malays but he could just be portraying the British as they were in the dying days of their colonial era.

Nicholas - you look from your photo a good deal younger than me. Some of us old-uns were taught at school just how superior the British were to everyone else on the planet and only came to learn that we weren't afterwards.

I've read nearly all Shute's work and regard most of it as thoughtful commentary on mid-20th century life - with some speculation on future conflicts - try 'What happened to the Corbetts' - written just prior to WW2 and speculating on the Southampton area being bombed before it actually happened - and 'On the beach' - the nuclear holocaust one. Try them all - if you liked 'A Town like Alice' you may well enjoy all the others.
Aug. 14th, 2010 07:23 am (UTC)
Please identify yourself when you leave anonymous comments here - or better yet, sign in via OpenID.

I've read and enjoyed both On The Beach and Slide Rule recently. The latter is quite clear on his economic views. As for his racism, I don't think we anyone any favours by trying to claim that it is something else. Typical of his time, perhaps. (And I don't think pupils at my school were ever taught about the superiority of the British.)

But thank you for your comment anyway.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 14th, 2010 02:29 pm (UTC)
Shute wrote about ordinary working life in a realistic and sympathetic way that was pretty rare then and I think remains so (though perhaps it has been ghettoised in some genre that I'm unfamiliar with, like romance or family sagas).

George Orwell, reviewing Shute's Landfall in 1940, commented on this: "There is no lack nowadays of clever writers; the trouble is that such writers are so cut off from the life of their time as to be unable to write about ordinary people. ... The way in which the author handles [the protagonist] shows what an advantage it is for a thinking man to live sometimes on equal terms with men who are not 'thinking'. The young airman is completely unintellectual. His hobbies are getting difficult stations on the wireless and fitting together model ships of which he buys the parts ready-made. He is conducting a flirtation with a barmaid, whom he finally marries, and there are whole chapters of the kind of conversation that one hears flung to and fro across saloon bars, full of doubles entendres and "Oo, aren't you awful! " But the author treats none of this ironically. He sees the young airman's point of view, because, presumably, he has at some time shared his experiences. He can stand inside him as well as outside him and realize that he is heroic as well as childish, competent as well as silly. The result is a good, simple story, pleasantly free from cleverness, and at times genuinely moving."
Aug. 13th, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
I loved this book as a teen and reread it many many times. None of his other books quite worked as well for me.
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