Set in Malaya during the Second World War, A Town Like Alice tells the story of Englishwoman Jean Paget. When Paget is captured by the advancing Japanese army, she joins a group of women and children who are forced to march from prison camp to prison camp because the Japanese had devised no plan to deal with them. She later meets up with an Australian digger, Joe Harman, who hails from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Although a prisoner of war, Joe is occasionally allowed outside his camp to help his guards, and subsequently helps the group with medicine and food, which he appropriates from the Japanese without their knowledge. When Joe is eventually caught and tried for stealing the commandant's chickens, he is sentenced to death. After being forced to watch him being tortured, Jean and the group are sent once more on the relentless march to nowhere. When their sole remaining guard later dies, they seek refuge in a village, where they remain until the war ends. Shortly before she returns to England, Jean finds out that Joe's execution was stayed and that he is still alive. She later travels to Alice Springs to find him. Joe, in the meantime, has travelled to England in pursuit of her. They eventually meet in the Alice Springs airport lounge and are finally able to express the emotion they feel for one another.
Set during and immediately after World War II, A Town Like Alice is both a love story and a war story. It spans two decades and three continents. The story begins with the capture of a group of civilian women by the Japanese and follows the nightmare of their captivity in the jungles of Malaya. It is during this time that one of the women, Englishwoman Jean Paget, meets a cheerful and laconic Australian prisoner of war, Joe Harman, who hails from Alice Springs. When he is tortured for a simple act of kindness, she believes that he has died. Later, after the war has ended, she discovers that he didn't die, and sets out to find him in Australia. Meanwhile, he travels to England to find her. The two are eventually reunited in the rugged outback of Australia.
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
'When You Are Old', W. B. Yeats.