Irish writer Jennifer Johnston is a new author to me, despite having written something like 19 novels. I learned of her from Cathy at 746 Books a couple of years ago, and put her on my list for a future Reading Ireland Month. Her 1974 novella How Many Miles to Babylon? appealed to me because I have been wanting to read more novels set in and around World War I (I think I have literary WWII fatigue) and also because it is short! Only 156 pages in my library edition. I didn’t quite know what to expect but I found a tremendously moving, beautifully written story.
Essentially you have the story of a friendship that blossoms between an upper class, landed young Irishman, Alexander, and a peasant boy, Jerry, who lives nearby and later works in the stables on the estate. This unlikely friendship is much to the chagrin of Alexander’s disapproving parents, who are locked in a deeply unhappy relationship of their own. But then World War I begins, and both young men enlist – Alexander, half pushed into it by his mother and half escaping his unhappy home; Jerry, to learn how to fight in the Irish Nationalist movement to come.
Just about half of the book takes place before the war and half during. The writing is just lovely and evocative, and Alexander’s and Jerry’s burgeoning friendship centers mainly on forbidden (because of Alexander’s supposedly delicate health) swims in the lake.
I remember, now that my mind has returned to it, the racing clouds in the pale sky above, and, below, the same clouds racing in the water, and it seemed as if we floated between them not connected in any way to the earth. It was my first and best experience of alcohol. Before going home we went down and swam among the clouds in the lake, and sucked in great mouthfuls of them, and sprayed them out all over each other. The sun’s golden track across the water made it look, we both agreed, as if walking on the water would be child’s play.
Once the narrative moves to the Front, Alexander is made an officer and Jerry is a Private. Here, too, their friendship is frowned upon, on the grounds of discipline and also class. Johnston writes about the horrors of war with a deliberate, clear eye but also lets the two friends enjoy moments of fun ( a few moments on horseback to chase a fox) and tender connection. In fact, there is a question of whether or not the friendship is homoerotic or perhaps would have been more in different times and circumstances. Clearly the two have a special bond.
It was the only thing that was a positive pleasure, the feel of the alcohol creeping like a slow flame down your throat. He knelt down in front of me and began to ease off my right boot. The illness in his eyes as he smiled at me was a reflection of my own. He didn’t speak. The operation took some time. It was painful and I honestly didn’t know if I would ever get them back on again, my feet were so swollen.
‘It’s like taking a cork out of a bottle.’
He then began on the second boot. He carefully peeled off my socks. Without a word he took up the flask and poured some of the rum into the hollow of his palm and then began to massage my feet.
He only grinned.
‘You’ll be a new man in the morning.’
The ending is a bit of a shock. The reader knows from the beginning that something bad has happened because Alexander is writing from a military prison cell and then goes into reflection on the whole backstory. I’ll say that I cried, a lot. It’s a heart-breaker for sure. But it is incredibly beautiful as well. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so invested in a novella before. I loved the quality of the writing, I loved the details about the trenches and the waiting time between going back out to the trenches. I loved the descriptions of the lake in Ireland and the swans that swim there, the stolen moments the boys had before the war. I haven’t even talked about Alexander’s mother and father, how wretchedly unhappy they are, how quietly cruel the mother is. She’ll give you the shivers for sure. This was a terrific read and I’ll definitely be reading more of Jennifer Johnston in the future.