‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ by Jennifer Johnston (1974) – 156 pages
‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ tells about an Irish family facing World War I, but it is no exercise in misty-eyed nostalgia; this novel confronts hard truths head on. It sure would be nice if we all came from loving reasonably happy families but that simply is not the case, not even among the upper class people. Bitter unhappiness in families and hugely murderous wars are two of the manifestations of imperfection in humans, and ‘Babylon’ deals with them both.
This novel is about two Irish boys, Alec and Jerry, who go off to fight in World War I. Alec is upper class; Jerry is lower class. They befriend each other while out in the fields while young, much to Alec’s mother’s distress. Alec’s mother is one of the most spiteful characters I have ever come across in fiction. The marriage between Alec’s mother and Alec’s father is strained somewhere between indifference and outright hatred. Here is a couple who probably should have been divorced, but divorce was unacceptable at that time.
“Mother was always insistent in an immaculate appearance at the breakfast table. They would be there, immaculate themselves, their heads elegantly bent towards the breakfast morning papers and the cream-drenched porridge, starched damask napkins folded neatly across their knees. They would grow old immaculately, their implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world. Is hatred as necessary as love, I wondered, to keep the wheels driving forward?”
These lines highlight two of the special qualities in Jennifer Johnston’s writing. There are the physical details that dramatize the scene but also advance the story, “the cream-drenched porridge, the starched damask napkins folded neatly across the knees”. But then also there is the heavy emotional weight of the scene, the couple’s “implacable hatred of each other hidden from the world”. There would have been so many other ways for Johnston to lighten this scene, but she instead faces up to the antagonism between this husband and wife directly.
We also get into the political situation at the time. Irish men are fighting in the British army, but many of them during World War I are looking forward to the day when Ireland will be independent of England, and they resent having to follow the commands of their British officers.
Whenever I read a novel by Jennifer Johnston (and I have read at least six), I think this could really work well as a play or a movie. She always has strong characters and dramatic scenes in her stories that just seem to be calling out to be portrayed by actors. I know her father, Denis Johnston, was a playwright so it is in her genes.
All of the novels of Jennifer Johnston that I have read have been tough-minded and deal with hard truths, and ‘How Many Miles to Babylon?’ is no exception. However her writing is also lyrical and passionate and you get a grand picture of what life was like in the Irish countryside. She is a master of the short intense novel.
I do believe that Jennifer Johnston is one of the absolute strongest writers of recent times and that you could do yourself a favor and read her work. But don’t only take my word for it. Check out the Jennifer Johnston collection at Reading Matters. Jennifer Johnston is also the favorite living author of Kim at Reading Matters.