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Looking back it all seems idyllic, but I’m sure that we had our ugly moments as well as our beautiful ones.  Real friendship admits recognition of the ugly as well as the beautiful.  I remember the moments that snatched me from the passive solitude of my normal life, warned me of the pleasure and the fear of living.

(from How Many Miles to Babylon?)

Set in Ireland and Flanders during World War I, How Many Miles to Babylon? is a story of friendship.  Jennifer Johnston writes about two young men first divided by class, then divided by rank.  Alexander Moore is the son of a wealthy Irish farmer, and Jerry Crowe is a peasant.  The two bond over their love of swimming and horses, and their friendship blossoms until Alec’s mother reminds him of his position as a member of the upper class.  Alec’s parents are a piece of work; whatever love they might have had for one another is long gone.  His mother must get her way all the time, and his sickly father will speak up for a moment, then recede into the background.

Jerry decides to enlist in the British army because his family could use the money, and Alec enlists at the same time because his mother insists that he must.  Alec becomes a junior officer and soon learns that his friendship with Jerry is considered inappropriate by his superiors.  Despite Major Glendinning’s insistence that he will make a man of Alec, the two continue their friendship in the trenches and still dream of running a horse farm together one day.

First published in 1974, How Many Miles to Babylon? is very short but takes time to get moving.  The first half of the book introduces readers to Alec and describes his strained relationship with his parents and his budding friendship with Jerry.  The latter half of the novel takes place at the front in Flanders, where Jerry takes drastic action after receiving a letter from home and Alec struggles under the cold and oppressive Major Glendinning.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is not a novel solely about the war.  Even when Johnston describes the harsh conditions of the trenches, the constant shelling and the chilblains, readers will feel removed from the action.  With World War I in the background, Johnston touches upon Irish history, particular the tensions between the Irish and the British.  Through Jerry’s revolutionary leanings and the harsh comments about the Irish made by Major Glendinning, Johnston hints at the coming battle for Irish independence.

Alec, the narrator, is a very passive character for most of the book.  Just like his father, he submits to his mother’s every demand.  When she tell him that he has to go to war, he protests that he has no desire to fight or be killed, but he ends up doing what she expects of him anyway.  In contrast, Jerry is more of a free spirit, making his own decision to go to war and speaking out when he should keep his mouth shut.  With Alec as narrator, the book moves a bit slowly, possibly because I didn’t have any strong feelings for him until the very end.  Still, there’s a beauty to Johnston’s prose that kept me glued to the page.

How Many Miles to Babylon? is one of those novels that hits you hard at the end.  I was never entirely sure where the book was going, and when it got there, I was simply stunned.  The ending says so much about the characters, and it was both a satisfying end to the journey and one that left me wanting to know what happened next.  Johnston surprised me and made me cry.  I’ll certainly be thinking about this book for awhile.

Disclosure: I borrowed How Many Miles to Babylon? from my local library. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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