How Many Miles To Babylon? (1974) is an incredibly interesting short read set in 1914 just before the 1916 Rising and the beginning of WWI.
I first came across this book when it was on the curriculum in my secondary school. I liked what I got to read of it at the time but when you are studying a book it can be difficult to sit back and just enjoy the book. So I put it on the to-read list and recently I got the chance to read it through and unsurprisingly it was a great read.
Gorgeously told by Johnston, this book is rich in Irish history and also in the history of what life was like in the war in Flanders. The protagonist of this book is Alec and it is told from his point of view. Alec is an upper-class Protestant who becomes friends with Jerry who is a working-class Catholic. They both grow up together in Wicklow and eventually find themselves in the British Army. Their friendship is wonderful to read. There is such a strong connection and bond between them that bypasses class and another delicate boundary of religion in Ireland at that time.
Love is a major theme in the book. Although it’s never exactly said in the book that Alec and Jerry’s relationship is ever anything more than friendship, I did get the impression that there was stronger emotions between them. I certainly felt that they were in love but neither told each other how they felt. Still actions speak louder than words and there is so many moments in this book where you see the sacrifices they make for each other and the love they feel for each other.
Class is a major theme in this book. On many an occasion Alec’s and Jerry’s relationship is put to the test because of their different backgrounds. At one stage Alec’s mother wants him not to spend time anymore with Jerry and when they are in the army there is also pressure on Alec once again not to be seen with Jerry because Alec is an officer and Jerry is a soldier. It all is rather ridiculous but to the people saying it they seem to find it valid and right. It does seem to be all about power and appearances. Alec and Jerry are ahead of their time and rightly don’t see what difference it makes.
Another major theme of this book is family life and dynamics. Alec comes from quite a cold home mostly because his mother is domineering. She seems unhappy with her own life and not in love with his father like she used to be. To be honest I liked Alec and his father but I didn’t really take to his mother. However she is very well-written. So much so that you feel the tension from the home just through the pages. However much Alec tries to please her, nothing seems enough. On the other hand Jerry seems to get on well with his mother and sisters but hasn’t much of a relationship with his father. I think Johnston wrote these family dynamics very well and gave a very clear picture of both of their home lives.
War is also a major theme of this book. We get a great insight into what life was like in Flanders even many decades later and the struggles faced in vivid detail and accounts. We also get an insight into the varying reasons why people joined. Alec joined to please his Mum, Jerry to gain experience to fight for the Nationalist cause and Bennett, an English officer who Alec shares a room with, to be a hero. They are all young and are now in a situation which it seems clear none of them are ready for with a lot of older people who are putting a lot of pressure on their shoulders and should know better.
Johnston wrote a very authentic book about this period. Anyone from Ireland like me who knows the history of Ireland knows what people went through in those days seeking independence and been ruled by the Catholic religion which had more power than the state at that time. Johnston wrote here a very accurate portrayal which isn’t always done of both of these situations and showed the daily lives that people led at the time in a very true, human way.
The book is weaved together brilliantly and seamlessly. The ending of this book is sad and powerful without giving too much away. It seems at first to come out of nowhere and then you realise the whole plot has been working up to this conclusion. Stunningly written but have a few tissues ready …
This is a wonderful read. Very naturally written with great descriptions. A must-read.
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