Review 1767: Classics Club Spin! A Town Like Alice

Best of Ten!

I haven’t ever read anything by Nevil Shute, so I decided to put A Town Like Alice on my Classics Club list, and then it was chosen for the latest spin. I’m glad I chose it for my list, because it’s a really good book, hard to categorize—part war story, part love story, part adventure story, about brave and resourceful people and challenges faced. I loved it.

The novel is narrated by Noel Strachan, an elderly solicitor, who finds himself the trustee for a young woman named Jean Paget. After they befriend each other, Jean confides to him that during World War II she was in Malaya when she and a group of women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Since the Japanese didn’t know what to do with them, they were marched hundreds of miles back and forth over the Malay peninsula. Half of them died until Jean made a deal with a village headman that he would allow them to stay there if they helped with the rice harvest. During the time they were wandering, an Australian POW who was driving trucks for the Japanese tried to steal food for them and was crucified by the Japanese. Jean decides to use part of her legacy to dig a well in the Malayan village to thank them for helping.

While in Malaya, Jean learns that the Australian man, Joe Harman, did not die as she thought. She decides to go to Australia to try to find him. As fate would have it, however, he comes to Strachan’s office in London looking for Jean, having learned that she was single after thinking all this time that she was married.

About half the novel is about the couple finding each other, but then Jean sees the nearby town to the remote station where Joe works. She learns that the girls won’t stay in town because there is nothing there for them, and Joe can’t keep men on the station because there are no girls. The resourceful Jean decides that if she can’t bear to live in the town, something must be done to improve it.

It’s easy to see why this novel is so beloved, although caution—there is incidental racism that reflects the times. That being said, I found this novel deeply satisfying—engrossing, touching, full of life and spirit.

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Review 1742: The Man in the Wooden Hat

The Man in the Wooden Hat is the second novel in the Old Filth trilogy. Old Filth examines the entirety of the life of its main character, Edward Feathers, while this novel takes a closer look at his marriage with Betty. As with Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat appears to be straightforward, but there is a kick at the end.

At the beginning of the novel, Eddie has sent a letter containing a marriage proposal to Betty, who is vacationing in Hong Kong while Eddie has been working in London. Betty accepts his proposal when he arrives in Hong Kong, where he makes only one condition, that Betty never leave him.

Only hours later, Betty meets Eddie’s rival, Terry Veneering, and falls immediately in love with him, although he is married with a son, Harry. She also falls in love with nine-year-old Harry. She is determined to marry Eddie; however, she spends a night with Terry before the wedding. Unfortunately, he leases a house for their rendezvous from Albert Ross, Eddie’s best friend, a Eurasian dwarf. Ross finds her purse there. He does not tell Eddie but returns the purse to Betty and tells him she must never leave Eddie. He knows of all the loss in Eddie’s life.

So begins their marriage. I did not dislike Betty despite her infidelity; in fact, I liked her, although it’s hard to decide what to think about Veneering. The novel follows the entirety of their marriage, which is reticent and notable for Eddie’s absences for work. Betty, who was born in China and subject as a child to detention by the Japanese, finds she cannot have children.

It’s hard to explain how this sort of everyday novel can be so absorbing. We think we know everything about the Featherses. But Gardam tilts everything slightly in the final chapter.

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Review 1731: Old Filth

Best of Ten!

From his birth and continuing through his adolescence, Edward Feathers was abandoned or taken away from every person he loved. As an adult, he was a still, stiff man unable to love.

After the death of his wife, Betty, Sir Edward, or Old Filth as he is known in the world of law where he is a prominent lawyer, begins re-examining the events of his past. He also makes attempts to connect with people important to him, but these attempts are abortive. Slowly, all the things he has never spoken of are revealed.

Written in sterling prose, Old Filth is a mesmerizing story about the Raj Orphans, children who were shipped to England at an early age from the Far East. The novel is touching and completely gripping. And for those who loved it like I did, hooray! It’s the first of a trilogy.

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Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from¬†Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 490: The Glass Palace

Cover for The Glass PalaceBest Book of the Week!
In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Burma was one of the wealthiest in southeast Asia. Its people were all literate, and no one in the country went hungry. Hundreds of thousands of Indians and people from other nearby countries traveled there to work on the waterways or the teak plantations.

In 1885, the Burmese government imposed a fine on a British trading company for avoiding taxes by under-reporting the amount of teak it was exporting. The British government used this incident as a pretext for invading the country and taking the royal family captive. King Thebaw and Queen Supalayat and their children, along with a few servants, were deported to India, where they were kept captive for the rest of the king’s life in a crumbling, poorly maintained house. Their personal possessions, including the king’s valuable jewelry collection, were confiscated and returned to England.

It is around this shameful incident that the beginning of The Glass Palace is constructed, an ambitious novel that tells the recent history of India and Burma/Myanmar through the stories of several related families. Rajkumar is a 10-year-old Indian orphan whose mother died in their attempt to reach Burma, and he is working at a small cooking stall near the palace when it is breached. He witnesses the removal of the queen and the princesses, and is struck by the beauty of Dolly, their young servant. Dolly is the only one of the lady’s maids who chooses to follow the royal family into exile.

Rajkumar goes to work for a Malayan businessman named Saya John Martins. With Saya John’s help and advice, Rajkumar eventually makes his fortune in the teak industry and finally travels to India to look for Dolly. She accepts his proposal and returns to Burma with her friend Uma, the recent widow of the first Indian Collector, the official in charge of the Burmese royal family.

These are just the bare bones of a dual story rich in characters and detail, on the one hand that of Rajkumar’s efforts to better himself, on the other hand that of the lives of Dolly and the royal family in exile. But this novel is not a love story, and that is just the beginning of this novel, which continues until the present. The novel follows the fates of Rajkumar and Dolly’s children and grandchildren and those of Uma’s nieces and nephews in India and Burma as the families intermarry with each other and with Saya John’s children. As we follow the fortunes of some family members in Burma and Malaya, other family members get involved in the Indian movement for independence from the British empire.

During the Japanese invasion and bombings of Burma and Malaya during World War II, various family members struggle to survive, one an Indian soldier in the British army, one a rubber plantation owner, one a photographer who disappears in Malaya. Rajkumar and Dolly and their daughter-in-law and grandchild are forced with thousands of other Indians to make the thousand-mile trek back to India.

Ghosh is interested in telling a complex story of culture and  history, so he keeps us at a remove from his characters, but that does not make the novel any less moving. The novel does an amazing job of exploring the roots of problems in Myanmar and India through its exposition of events and the varying points of view of its characters. This is a captivating and ambitious novel.