Nevil Shute's most beloved novel, a tale of love and war, follows its enterprising heroine from the Malayan jungle during World War II to the rugged Australian outback.
Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman living in Malaya, is captured by the invading Japanese and forced on a brutal seven-month death march with dozens of other women and children. A few years after the war, Jean is back in England, the nightmare behind her. However, an unexpected inheritance inspires her to return to Malaya to give something back to the villagers who saved her life. Jean's travels leads her to a desolate Australian outpost called Willstown, where she finds a challenge that will draw on all the resourcefulness and spirit that carried her through her war-time ordeals.
Paperback, 359 pages
Published 2000 by House of Stratus (first published 1950)
ISBN 1842323008 (ISBN13: 9781842323007)
About the Author
This book takes place in the years during and after World War II, so it probably spans the '40s and into the '50s.
Jean Paget is a young woman who finds herself the recipient of a large trust fund. The story flashes back to a time during WWII, when Jean was essentially a prisoner of war amid a large group of women in Malaysia. They spend months being marched all across the region where no one wants responsibility for them. During their time on foot, Jean meets another prisoner of war by the name of Joe.
Joe is cow wrangler from the outback of Australia, and a captured prisoner of war. The Japanese have discovered he is handy, and have put him to use as a mechanic. Joe and Jean become friends, with Joe mistakenly believing that Jean is a married woman separated from her husband by war, like most of the other women in her group. He takes to jokingly calling her "Mrs. Boong" (and I never really got why he did this). NOTE: The aboriginal workers on the ranches in Australia are referred to as "boongs", which is thought of as a derogatory term. Wikitionary says that this is also a Malayan term for "brother". Hence my confusion regarding Joe's humorous use of it as a nickname for Jean.
Jean was a young girl in her early 20s during this period (the youngest of the women in the group), but very bright and a skilled office worker (which was why she was in Malaysia). She seems to know a little about a lot of things, she speaks some of the native tongue, and she becomes something of a spokesperson for the female POWs. She often quotes the Koran to her captors and Malayans (although she herself is not Muslim).
She said, "It is also written, 'If ye be kind towards women and fear to wrong them, God is well acquainted with what ye do.'"Eventually Joe's attempts to help the women catches the wrath of the Japanese Captain in charge. The Captain reminded me of the camp commander in the movie Unbroken.
It is doubtful if the West can ever fully understand the working of a Japanese mind. When Captain Sugamo saw that the Australian recognized him from the threshold of death, he bowed reverently to the torn body, and he said with complete sincerity, "Is there anything that I can get for you before you die?"Years after the war, after Jean has inherited her fortune, she remembers the conversations that she and Joe had about a town called Alice in Australia. She heads to Australia to see this land for herself, and to try to find Joe again. And that is where the second half of the story occurs, as Jean finds Australia holds an adventure for her that she never expected.
The story is narrated by Noel Strachan, the attorney who wrote up the trust fund and is the executor of the estate. He and Jean form a relationship that lasts until his death.
My final word: I liked this story. I liked the female empowerment storyline. I enjoyed the first half more than the second half (the first half taking place in Malaysia), but there was a certain charm to be found in the second half. I was disturbed at how easily Jean seemed to accept bigotry and cruelty, but perhaps that was a sign of the times and era. Overall this was a nice introduction to Nevil Shute. Using Noel as the narrator was an interesting choice. Some in my book club thought the story would have been better narrated by Jean herself. I do think the story would have been a totally different animal if that choice had been made, but I understand the need to have Noel narrate. Otherwise you would have lost all of his insight concerning his complex relationship with Jean. This was a nice, quick read.
The Cerebral Girl is a forty-something blogger just digging her way out from under a mountain of books in the deep south of Florida.
This book was the August 2015 selection for the Cape Coral Bookies.