This autumn I was invited to the Havant LitFest, Hampshire, to run a workshop for teenagers and to give a talk about my Y.A. novels, Hidden and Illegal, which are set on Hayling Island, near the festival venue and opposite the Isle of Wight. Once I had agreed the organisers then asked if I would like to be on a panel the night before where I would have to champion the best book ever written.
So – what to choose? The Bible? – a bit obvious. Crime and Punishment? Yes, but even Dostoyevsky muttered to his wife that he had rushed it and should have done a good edit. Ultimately I had to choose a book and it had to be one I could talk about enthusiastically. I chose A Town Like Alice, by Neville Shute.
Here are my reasons :-
|Langstone Mill - Neville Shute wrote here during the war.|
- Neville Shute wrote for a period of time in the Old Mill, at the top of Hayling Island, five minutes from the venue for the LitFest. One of the books he completed there was Pied Piper, a very unusual war story. Shute is a much loved local literary figure so I had a local connection.
- Shute wrote 23 novels but Alice is the only book based on a true story.
- The true story is the remarkable account told to Shute by a young woman who had been a prisoner of the Japanese along with a group of around 80 Dutch women and children during the occupation of Sumatra. Their story is particularly unusual because the Japanese never settled them into a camp. They simply made them walk round the island for two and a half years until less than 30 were left alive.
- The main character, a young woman called Jean, says in the novel, “People who spent the war in prison camps have written a lot of books about what a bad time they had. They don’t know what it was like not being in a camp.” The entire novel pivots around this heart-breaking statement.
- I don’t want to spoil the book for you so I won’t say any more about this part of the story.
- However, if Shute’s great novel had only dealt with the war story then it would not be my choice for the greatest novel ever. But the war story is only the first half of the book. The second half of the book is set in the remotest part of the Australian Outback. This is a wonderful and fascinating contrast. The book was written in the late 1940s and Shute knew the country very well. At that time Australia was a very different country to the modern high tech place it is today. Shute gives us a wonderful picture of life in the Outback and shows how the Australians established their towns – a town like Alice. He really makes the reader want to leap on a plane and go there.
- By bringing alive two such contrasting settings and placing at the heart of his novel a wonderful love story, Shute has written a classic and a book which I have enjoyed re-reading again and again.
It was therefore easy for me to stand up and champion my book but I have to say, all the other books were brilliant and so well presented that it made for a marvellous, stimulating booky evening.
|From left to right : Sarah Butterfield, me, David Willetts, Lynn Pick, Mark Waldron, Naomi Foyle|
Here are the other books :
The Sea Around Us by Rachel Larson – presented by Sarah Butterfield, professional artist.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume – presented by David Willetts, MP for Havant and husband of Sara Butterfield.
The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giona – presented by Lynne Pick, local resident and artist.
Biggles Takes it Rough, by W.E. Johns – presented by Mark Waldron, Editor of The News, Portsmouth. Mark stated that his first Biggles book started him on the road to becoming a serious and committed reader but without his local library he wouldn't have had access to books at all. For the Dickens centenary celebrations in Portsmouth this year he read the entire works in 14 months – so he has come a long way from good old Biggles and all because of the library.
Queen of Heaven and Earth by Wolkstein and Kramer – presented by Naomi Foyle, poet and author.
Sarah Butterfield won – which was wonderful ( although we all thought Biggles was looking like the front runner)
The audience loved the whole process, which included questions and comments to the panel and a voting system – marbles in jars. ( The better half reckons I came second...but who knows!)
It was an inspiring way to spend an evening on books – many of which were lovingly falling to pieces and a reminder that if we had all stood there with our Kindles it just wouldn't have smelt and looked and felt the same.
What would you have chosen as the best book ever written?