Dual book review: A Town Like Alice/Captain Corelli’s Mandolin


Aren’t these Vintage Summer Classic editions beautiful? They typify summer reads and really make me yearn for the warmer weather that we are certainly missing here in cold and rainy Melbourne! These are two books which I read last year for the BBC book challenge, and I really enjoyed both of them. Here are my reviews for these two:


A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

(This review was originally posted on Ally’s BBC Books)

This book was yet another on this list that I read with very little prior knowledge and, as a result, expectation. I had certainly heard the title mentioned on more than one occasion, but knew nothing of the book’s plot, characters or themes – so this was another pleasant little surprise of which this list holds so many.


Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice was first published in 1950, and boy, does this show. A lot of the crucial and essential attitudes towards important things, such as the treatment of Indigenous Australia, the agency of women, and basic communication and language skills really do age this book terribly. However, it is crucial to the appreciation of this book to read it as you would have been reading it when it was originally published. Obviously, read through the sphere of a contemporary readership, we cringe at times at the poor Australianisms (I’ve lived in Australia for my whole life, and I think I read the word “Bonza” in this book more than I have ever heard it said out loud), we condemn the treatment of the Indigenous Australians, who are the slave class and are constantly referred to in derogatory terms. However, the condemnation of the freedoms of women is something which is clearly shared by the author and by a modern audience.


Our principal character, Jean Paget, is truly a remarkable creation. We learn through the novel’s basic three parts, that not only has she survived the Japanese invasion of Malaya whilst she was working there and taken prisoner, but that she was one of the leaders in her group of prisoners, having the ability to speak fluent Malay. Her physical strength is something to be admired, as she resolutely survives the marches between camps (as the Japanese guards refuse all responsibility for the group and continually march them around), the physicality of which many women succumb. Jean has also taken responsibility for one of these women’s toddler, whom she is grasping when she meets our second primary player, Australian soldier and fellow prisoner of war, Sergeant Joe Harman. The pair forge a friendship, with Joe stealing chickens and medications for the women.


However, their friendship is short lived, after Joe steals five chickens from the local Japanese commander, and Joe foots the blame. He is punished by the Japanese, beaten, crucified and left to die. That he died as a result of this torture Jean assumes, and carries on with her determined survival skills. From here, after the Japanese guard dies, Jean and the remaining women become a part of a Malayan village for three years until the war ends, and they are repatriated.


It is in Post-War London that our story begins, with Jean learning from solicitor Noel Strachan (the third major character in Alice) that she is the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance from an uncle whom she never knew. However, the inheritance will not be hers until she turns thirty-five, as per her late uncle’s instructions. From her learning this, Noel becomes her guide and advisor, as Jean decides how she would like to spend her newly-acquired money – by building a well in the Malay village in which she lived after the war: “a gift by women, for women”.


I find the most remarkable thing about this story is the incredible amount of strength, courage, intelligence and bravery with which Shute has adorned his main character in Jean. As a leading lady in her mid-thirties in a book written in the 1950s, she truly is an admirable creation. For the risk of spoilers, I will not divulge the entirety of how Jean spends her inheritance, but the way in which she reaps the rewards are selfless, fruitful and the result of a woman who clearly has economic intelligence.


It is really great to see at least some of Australia portrayed in one of the books on this list, even though it is chock full of clichés and occasionally derogatory claims towards Australians (Nevil Shute was newly settled in Australia when he wrote this book). And I am proud that a book that represents the Australian connection in this list holds such a great female character, as well as a nuanced story of love, war, hardship, discoveries and entrepreneurship.


Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

This book was originally published in 1994 by the British author Louis de Bernières, an extremely well regarded and “high literary” author. Considered to be his masterpiece and instantly a modern classic, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (or Corelli’s Mandolin as it was originally published) takes place on the Greek Island of Cephalonia during the Italian and German occupation of the Second World War.


It is an extremely sophisticated novel, and the prose are rich and full of symbolism; so much so that the island of Cephalonia becomes a character of its own, feeling both the pain and the love that the characters feel. Given the wartime backdrop, it is almost a given that it is going to be a heart-rending tale of love and loss.


The main characters that we follow through the course of the book are, first, Pelagia, the daughter of local doctor Iannis. She is beautiful, intelligent and headstrong, determined to follow her father into the world of medicine and science. At the beginning of the novel, she is betrothed to fisherman Mandras; however, very shortly after, Mandras is called to the front line of the war and the couple are separated. Pelagia writes letters to Mandras, but every single one goes unanswered.


And then there is Captain Antonio Corelli, an Italian officer who is posted to Cephalonia as part of the occupying forces. He is assigned to live in the home of Dr Iannis and Pelagia, and Pelagia is determined to hate him. However, she finds this increasingly hard to do given his vivacity and wit, and, once she gets to know him, she discovers that he is not a typical soldier, in that he is determined to have a “peaceful war”. Also, crucially, he is an adept mandolin player, treating his instrument with the upmost care and tenderness, even giving it a name.


Swiftly, the pair fall in love, and Pelagia convinces herself that, due to her unanswered letters, Mandras has died. However, there is much more warfare in the near future, and this will cause havoc not only on the couple’s relationship but on the island of Cephalonia.


As per my usual reviewing method, I have not revealed many of the crucial details of the book – no spoilers here! But, of course, there is much more to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin than just this love story in the backdrop of war. There are issues of sacrifice and honour, horror and politics, history and heroism, and just what the war can do to individuals – both enriching and damning.


The overarching theme of this book, though, is love. The love of family, lovers and unrequited love; the love of music, and just how powerful it can be. Given that the novel is extremely graphic in its descriptions of the war, the fact that love is clearly the overwhelming theme of the book is a testament to just how strong the writing is. It’s truly a remarkable novel and I would certainly recommend it to just about everybody.


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