Literature and War Readalong February 25 2011: How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

This is just a quick note to remind you to make sure to get your copy of Jennifer Johnston’s WWI novel How Many Miles to Babylon? in time, should you want to read along this month. This is the second novel in the Literature and War Readalong. It is, like Strange Meeting, a very short novel, only 160 pages. The story adds another twist as the protagonists are Irish. Jennifer Johnston has been quoted saying that she had a passion for WWI but that it was also a substitute for her. What she really wanted to write about were the Troubles.

I found these interesting quotes on contemporarywriters

Prohibited friendship is also at the heart of How Many Miles to Babylon? The first-person narrator is Alec Moore, an only child and heir to the Big House; his ‘private and secret friend’ is Jerry Crowe, a village boy he has known since childhood. In 1914, fighting together near the Belgian border, the friends’ loyalty is tested by a brutal enforcement of class divisions and a code that brooks no sentiment or mercy. Johnston is adept at suggesting her characters’ interior lives through image and symbol, and invites her readers to join the dots between what is said and felt, as in this incident, related by Alec, at his parents’ dinner table: ‘[My mother] looked at [my father] with contempt and said nothing. I blushed and looked down, away from them, at the smooth glowing silver neatly ordered around my plate. A griffin raised its talon in an angry gesture on the handle of each spoon and fork.’

The First World War is a ‘passion’ for Johnston, one she initially used as a metaphor. ‘When I started writing prose, I had it very seriously in my mind that I wanted to write about the Troubles … yet I couldn’t face taking them head-on. So I started to write about the First World War…  how people try to keep their lives normal, their feet on the ground, even though terrible things are going on’ (The Irish World, 24 October 2007).

I hope many will feel tempted to join me in reading and discussing Jennifer Johnston. Should you not have read anything by this wonderful Irish writer, this is a good opportunity.

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