on 8 September 2006
This short novel holds a few surprises well worth waiting for. Written by the Dublin born Ms Johnston, now living across the border in Derry, it examines the Irish political landscape,
through a personal not a political lens as it follows the fortunes of Alex from the Big House and Jerry, an Irish peasant.
Written by Alex as a first person narrative it gives the reader a distinct feeling of getting up close and personal. You feel like you're eavesdropping.
Truth to tell nothing much happens for a while. A sense of ennui begins to set in for the reader mirroring the lifestyle of the two young protagonists. At times you wonder if it is just another tableau of the Anglo- Irish class and their peasant peers. World War 1 is the backdrop.
A surprising element for me was finding Patrick Pearse , leader of the Irish 1916 revolution, coming to life in its pages. Pearse is so often nothing more than a relic of some very distant past.
The book takes off when the two young men enlist and set off to serve at the Front.
Johnston never resorts to hyperbole, yet she manages to convey a very real sense of the horror and degradation of the trenches of World War 1.Both young men are so credible. Neither of them especially motivated by lofty political ideas but rather like most people stumbling along through life's events trying to make some sense of it all.
But no cosseted life in the Big House nor the discipline of Army life could adequately prepare the two young protagonists for the dilemma they face towards the end.This was a veritable crisis of conscience where nothing less than a personal response would do.
The descriptions of nature and the changing of the seasons capture the quintessence of the damp Irish climate like no other I've come across.The Big House is beatifully captured both in its splendour and its often dark, dismal interiors.
This is not the usual tale of larger than life war heroes but a down-to - earth portrayal of the harsh reality of war. A glimpse of young First World War manhood together with telling glimpses of class division. Once you get started you can't stop till you finish it. Well worth reading.
on 24 February 2001
This novel, written by Jennifer Johnston tells the tale of two young men from Ireland, one a Catholic peasant, and the other, the son of a Protestant landowner. The book goes on to tell how,they forged a life long friendship, and followed each other to the ends of the earth, all set against the stark sectarian background of pre independent Ireland. The plot develops around Alexander, the protestant, and how his relationship with his mother drove him to leave for the war and Jerry his Catholic friend, who dreams of an independent Ireland. The book, paints a clear vivid and truly disgusting picture of the hardship and suffering endured by all men who went to fight in World War 1, whether they were rich or poor, hero or villain. This novel is a truly compelling account of both Irish life, and life in the war, at the early part of the 20th century. This book contrasts strained family relationships with iron clad friendships, the comfort of the "Big House" with the squalor of the trenches. In short this book is a vivid, startling and precise reflection on life during World War 1
on 22 October 2012
That's the most beautiful love story I have ever read. The love between two men who are able to love each other up to the gift of death, given or received.
Do not get fooled by the Babylon title. It has nothing to do with the nursery rhyme it refers to, at least not directly. It is a metaphor of death when you give it to someone as a present and he gives it back to you as a responding present. Shared death like a dual return ticket to "Babylon." That's love for these two men who met when boys, Alexander and Jeremiah. They met in Ireland, on the shore of a lake in the country estate of an Irish landowner. Alexander is the son of this landowner and Jeremiah is the son of a poor farm worker on one farm of this landowner. This is Romeo and Juliet for two young men in the dramatic context of the First World War. But please do not make a mistake about the situation: the two boys are not in any way gay or whatever along that line. Though it would not change one iota to the tale and its beauty.
Ireland is still occupied by the English. This situation is in the background with Jeremiah going to the war to learn how to use a gun and Alexander to satisfy his cannibalistic mother. The two enlist together to remain together but Alexander is made a junior officer and Jeremiah is made a simple private probably of the lowest class. And Alexander will be told several times that he has to sever the relation with Jeremiah because an officer does not mix with the simple soldiers. Keep a distance mind you, you are officers, even if only junior officers. Of course the Irish junior officer is shadowed with an English junior officer to make sure things go fine. In fact it is the English Junior officer, a certain Bennett who does not obey orders and tries to bypass all regulations since he is not Irish and thus can afford it.
The only pleasure in that mess, or should I say in that blending mess of a war is alcohol, rum, strong spirit to make you lose your spirit and loosen your humanity. Rum as the way to Babylon, the sin city, the whore that all generals throw across the path of their inferior commanding officers or NCO or simple grass root privates for them to get the excitation they need to kill without thinking, certainly without thinking twice.
The book shows how absurd that war was, like a real game for generals who did not have any other objective but to have as many people killed on either side, on each side, on both side. The victory will be counted by the number of bodies. And if one is wounded in any hard way one has to be put to death for the sake and comfort of the others. And if one does not obey one is supposed to be shot to death by the others for the others to have a good example of what happens when one does not obey. There are no other rules in that war or any war as a matter of fact, even a nuclear war/ Victory is measured by the number of corpses.
The war is socially aimless since the army is deeply segregationist against the poor, then against the lower middle classes, then against the lower aristocracy. The army is a pyramid. All orders come from the tip of the top. And they go down step by step and have to be obeyed at the bottom and each level has to impose these orders to the lower level under them without any discussion. Obey first, discuss maybe afterwards if you are still alive.
Events will lead Jerry to taking a temporary deserting leave without any permission to find the debris of his father and he will come back when he will have found his father was exploded into smithereens when he stepped on a mine; But in the mean time he was classified a deserter, maybe a traitor, he was court-marshalled when he came back and sentenced to be shot dead. The firing squad will be his company mates and the officer will be the Irish officer himself, Alexander. Babylon is the destination of the bullets of that firing squad. Will they be able to go as far as Babylon by candlelight in the morning and will they be able to come back after achieving their job of killing an innocent, simple-minded and idealistic Irish boy, because Jeremiah is nothing but a boy lost in the absurd world of the English and the Germans and the French and the Russians and a few others.
Then I can't say what happens. But Alexander and Jeremiah know the only end for both of them has to be death, one for what he did and the other for his love for the "deserter". In war you are not supposed to love anyone. But it would be too simple if that love did not find a way to express its deepest power even in death. You have to read the last five pages to understand.
How can you love someone to the point of finding yourself in the position of having to have him shot by the firing squad of his mates and your men at your command? FIRE! And the man you love will die on your order.
To love someone to the point of death, the gift of death, given or received, to the point of killing if necessary, to the point of dying by being killed if compulsory.
No escape whatsoever and no future ever, but such a beautiful closing song that goes so far beyond Babylon with the Croppie boy whose death is the crop and harvest of the war.
Good men and true in this house who dwell,
To a stranger buichall I bid ye tell
Is the priest at home, or may he be seen
I would speak a word with Father Green.
The priest's at home boy and may be seen . . .
At the siege of Ross did my father fall,
And at Gory my loving brothers all . . .
I bear no hate 'gainst no living thing
But I love my country above the King
Now, Father, bless me and let me go
To die, if God hath ordained it so . . .
At Geneva Valley the young man died,
And at Passage there was his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer, shed a tear for the Croppie boy.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 10 December 2008
I first read this book at school for GCSE English - and now, 15 years later, I still regularly read it. If ever I find myself searching for a book to read (all those bookworms like me out there will know the feeling - you want a book that will grab you, you want to lose yourself in it's story) I glance in the bookcase and there it is - I find myself reaching for it, I am still engrossed in it, I am still moved by it. Other reviewers have touched on political aspects of the story, the harrowing narrative of the First World War, yes, it's all in there - but the part that gets me is the depth of the friendship between Alec and Jerry, their connection, their loyalty to each other, that's what keeps me gripped everytime - an emotional read.
on 22 November 2011
Jennifer Johnston does not seem to be as revered among contemporary Irish writers in quite the way she should be. Perhaps this is because she is Protestant, or at least because, like another Irish literary treasure, William Trevor, much of the subject matter of her work is viewed through a distinctly Protestant lens. Maybe that comment is controversial and unfair and I am certainly glad to hear from other reviewers that this book is or has been on the Leaving Certificate syllabus in the South as well as the GCSE syllabus in the North. However, even if her work is being introduced to a generation of schoolchildren I still cannot help but feel that she is under-read and underappreciated. Just eight amazon reviews for this wonderful book suggest that that is indeed so.
Whilst it is the unrelentingly grim, second half of this novel set on the battlefields of France that is usually mentioned by reviewers it is the early Irish countryside scenes, set in and around the 'Big House' of a Protestant landowner that best showcase Johnston's grasp of language and understated prose style. She captures beautifully the stultifying atmosphere of protagonist Alec's privileged but claustrophobic world and the boredom and emotional sterility of his parents and contrasts it with the poverty-stricken vibrancy of Catholic Jerry and his friends. Neither boy is particularly political and yet both are caught up in the maelstrom created by the tensions in their country and in the rest of Europe. The relationship between the two is delicately explored as it moves through initial wariness mixed with attraction through confusion and resentment with just the merest hint of homoeroticism, to settle finally on deep mutual admiration and trust in the trenches of World War One. There is no one who explores the relationship between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland better than Johnston.
on 7 February 2008
With the huge popularity of other more recent World War One literature, such as "Birdsong", "Regeneration" etc., Jennifer Johnston's wonderful story has been largely forgotten about - but not rightly so.
In 'How Many Miles to Babylon' the author really gets to the heart of life for young men in the trenches of Northern France and she writes a truly mesmerising and horrifying story, with great skill and few words, which leaves you quite stunned at the end.
The story centres around Alec, a boy whom we meet at a young age, growing up with Anglo-Irish parents on a country estate in Southern Ireland. Alec leads a sheltered and lonely life as a boy, and neither parent provides him with companionship, so he is delighted to find a friend in a boy from the village, Jerry. The boys keep their friendship secret as both are acutely aware of class divisions and know that neither should be seen with the other. When their friendship is discovered a few years later both boys are desolate but some bonds cannot be broken, and the boys enlist and go off to war together. Jerry is off to learn to fight so he can put his skills to use for the Irish Nationalist Cause, and Alec (who vaguely believes in Home Rule) finds himself goaded into war by his mother. Kinship survives despite further class divide in the army, but some obstacles are insurmountable and the two young men find themselves facing a greater horror than the War itself.
Although there are other convincing novels that deal with trench warfare in the First World War, this one really stands out for me. You won't be disappointed.
on 7 August 2015
Bought, in part, as a result of a misunderstanding (seeking another book of the same title), but attracted to it by the WWI theme, this was a vivid, poignant and very well-observed tale of a male friendship operating under differences of class and rank.
And, for once, the authors' endorsements on the cover "fresh and moving", "brilliant masterpiece" and "truly heartbreaking" do not exaggerate.
on 15 January 2007
I just LOVE this book to pieces. I,too, like some of the other reviewers had to read it as part of my english course in the Leaving cert but it was oceans away from the normal boring pros that are obligatory in school.
Basically, his book is about two young men, Alexander and Jerry, and the growth and development of their relation as they leave childhhod and progress into adulthood during a age of stormy political and religious tensions. Or in other words, they were on different sides of the political and religious divide when the troubles were at their hightest in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century and thus the book details if/how their relationship survives such an obstacle and other challenges that face them.
The end of this bok is the best part. In school i couldn't wait for the class to finish it so i read on-its one of a very small few of books to which i can cry to(over and over again as i have since discovered).
The only bad thing about this book is how short it is-but then again if it had been longer the main scenes may have been lost or changed by Jennifer Johnston(the magnificent Irish author behind this bok).
Buy it. Read it. Remember it. And hope that you too have the chance to experience such a true friend.
on 12 July 2011
I expected more of this book after reading the reviews, but was left somewhat disappointed. I found the style of writing clunky in places, and, particularly in the latter half of the book, the dialogue was written more as you would expect in a play rather than a novel - in fact it might work better on stage than on the page. The most effective part of the story was that telling of life in Ireland, where you got a real sense of oppression and unhappiness in Alec's home. The latter half of the book, set in the trenches, for me was less successful. And other books depict this aspect of the First World War better than this, e.g. Sebastian Foulkes, Pat Barker. The biggest indictment of the book for me was that as I approached the end, and the inevitable, which had been sign-posted at the start of the book, I wasn't moved by their situation, and didn't much care what happened to either of the two protagonists.
on 21 May 2013
Yet another First World War novel but an excellent one. First heard clips when it was book at Bedtime on Radio 4. Had to read it and not disappointed. The end was not quite what I had expected .Highly recommend.