How Many Miles To Babylon?
How many miles to Babylon?
Four score and ten, sir.
Will I get there by candlelight?
Yes and back again, sir..
- Traditional Nursery Rhyme
With a title referencing a traditional nursery-rhyme this novel retraces some familiar ground. How Many Miles to Babylon presents issues of friendship, family, class and war. What makes the novel worthwhile is the fine writing style of the author. Both the description of the desolation of Ireland as seen from the eyes of the impressionable youths and the experience on the fields of Flanders as it ends their innocence is well told.
The story begins, however, with the complex tale of a friendship between two boys in Ireland prior to and during World War I. Alec, the son of Anglo-Irish parents grows up lonely and friendless on his parents' estate in Wicklow during the early years of the 20th century. His parents have a difficult relationship and it is stated that "their only meeting place was the child." He meets a local boy, Jerry, who shares his passion for horses. Alec's mother, who believes strongly in the class system of early twentieth century Ireland, discovers the friendship and forbids him to spend any more time with Jerry. Their friendship is one that transcends their differences in class and character.
I found the psychology of the family triangle of Alec, his over-bearing mother and his deferential father to be the most interesting aspect of this slight novel. Their friendship is continued in private until the outbreak of the First World War. Jerry signs up as his father is already in the British Army and the King's Shilling would be of great benefit to his mother. Alec feels no compulsion to sign up until his mother tells Alec that his father Fredrick is not his biological father and in that moment he is so frustrated with his mother he impulsively signs up. In France the two friends are stationed together, but now divided by rank as well as class. They are commanded by Major Glendinning, a ruthless officer who shares Alec's mother's belief in the class system and divisions between rank, demanding that there be 'no flaw in the machinery'. When Jerry learns that his father is missing, he leaves to find out what happened to his father leading to a tragic ending.
While the end of the story is apparent from the opening pages, the complex and lyrical style of the author held my interest and kept me reading to discover the story behind the sad beginning. Another view of the tragic nature of the Great War, this short novel resonates with better and more substantial fictions and I would recommend readers turn, or return, to Erich Maria Remarque's magnificent All Quiet on the Western Front for the seminal version of this tragic turning point in World history.