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How Many Miles To Babylon?
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How Many Miles To Babylon?

3.38 of 5 stars 3.38  ·  rating details  ·  779 ratings  ·  62 reviews
As a child Alec, heir to the big house and only son of a bitter marriage, formed a close friendship with Jerry, a village boy who shared his passion for horses. In 1914 both enlisted in the British Army - Alec goaded by his beautiful, cold mother to fight for King and Country, Jerry to learn his trade for the Irish Nationalist cause.
Paperback, 156 pages
Published 1988 by Penguin Books (first published 1974)
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172nd out of 451 books — 332 voters
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For such a brief book, How Many Miles to Babylon is a work of startling delicacy and power. Set in the dying days of the Irish Ascendancy just before the start of WWI and the 1916 Rising ensured that "all changed, changed utterly", it tells the story of two young Irish men. Alex, an upper-class Protestant, and Jerry, a working class Catholic, who become friends despite the class divisions between them: a friendship that's both erotically charged and very strong, and which leads to one of the sta ...more
Well, good grief. How have I got to 48 and never read anything by this woman before. This book was really excellent. A poignant account of the trench warfare in Flanders and this would have ranked high just for that, added to it the story of friendship and loneliness and misunderstood compassion and it shoots ever upward.

It is written in the first person and as, in the opening paragraph, the narrator makes it clear he has only a few hours left to live and he is in custody there hangs over the w
Brian Robbins
A compelling, well-written little story - even though occasionally the word craftsmanship made itself a little too noticable.

As I read the book that bloody mother really got my goat big time - hideous, detestable crone that she was, even if she was disguised as a reasonably good-looking and well brought up one. My initial response was to want to consign her in my imagination to a different literary role, as Bill Sike's consort. However, by the time she had exerted her power and malice to force h
From BBC Radio 4 - Book at the Bedtimre:
Jennifer Johnson tells the remarkable story of a friendship during the First World War
This was apparently required reading for the leaving cert for some of my Irish friends. I wish I'd been made to read such wonderful(ly slashy) things in high school! The plot revolves around WWI and class consciousness and male friendship, and it's a painful but beautiful story that I'm glad I spent my last day in Ireland sitting outside in Merrion Square reading. Even in less fantastic locations, this book still shines.
The 156 pages of How Many Miles To Babylon? comprise one of the best short novels I've ever read. Incisive dialog and trenchant descriptions tell the story of two young Irishmen, one a Catholic laborer and the other the overprotected Protestant heir to a Wicklow estate.

Educated at home because of the supposed aftereffects of a childhood illness, Alec grows up friendless in a home riven by the arid marriage of his domineering mother and gentle but detached father. A chance encounter with Jerry pr
I must admit that I would never have picked this book to read myself, I had to read it for school (Leaving cert higher level course)and I will admit I was pleasantly surprised(to a certain point). I thought it was going to be a hard slog of a book with meanings and messages shoved down my throat at every opportunity like most novels for state exams are, but thankfully it wasn't. I can't fault Johnston's writing style, it flow and is very easy to read, her characters are well-drawn and believable ...more
Jul 03, 2010 Victoria rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Victoria by: A Neighbor
Oh! What a surprisingly powerful novel! One of our Irish neighbors recommended it to me, saying of all the books he was forced to read for school, this was his very favorite one. And I must say, the book took me by surprise! Though truly more of a novella than novel, at only being a scant few pages over 150, it was beautifully written and so emotional! I just loved it! I do think, however, in order to truly appreciate it, you need to have some understanding of the historical and political contex ...more
Colm M
A powerful and moving novel about family, friendship and love. The relationships between each of the realistically rendered characters are subtly established, especially the close (borderline homo-erotic?) one shared between the two protagonists, Jerry and Alec. Johnston's descriptions of landscapes-be it the idyllic lake side Irish country manor or the bleak war torn Belgian countryside during WW1-are masterful. A short, bittersweet tale of childhood innocence ravaged by the realities of life a ...more
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Read it for school, and I don't know I feel about it to be honest. It should have been really good. The storyline was interesting. I know technically they aren't actually gay, but it was a heartbreaking story if you read it like that. These two young men are on the brink of realizing they are in love with each other while fighting in World War I.

The Irish nationalism themes throughout the novel added an extra dimension to the relationship, setting the relationship against the backdrop of an Irel
I picked this up while we were visiting the World War I battlefields in Belgium and northern France with the study abroad students. I've always been drawn to the tragedy and folly of WWI, particularly its impact on the lives and minds of the young people thrown into the trenches. This book is very different from other works in the genre, the war is almost entirely in the background. There are no horrific descriptions of the violence or the suffering, no discussions of battles or tactics, no exam ...more
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, as two young boys, Alec and Jerry, mee ...more
I first heard about this story because the actor, Andrew Scott, was set to read it for the BBC on their "Book at Bedtime" series. (Info is here: I listened to him read an abridged version and it was incredibly haunting. I just had to know *what* had been left out.

This story still haunts me. It's a very simple tale, and quite short as well. But it's incredibly poignant and sad. It's a tale of wasted lives, loyalty, misplaced priorities (or perhaps that w
This short, but moving book tells the story of a friendship between two young men, which is forged across the class divide in Southern Ireland, in the years before the Great War. It continues as the two young men go to Flanders and fight at different ranks in the trenches. Johnston writes with conviction about family relationships, friendship and the futility of war. An excellent and worthwhile read, especially as the centenary of the outbreak of WWI approaches.
Darragh Nugent
It is well written but incredibly dull. The story is uninteresting due to it being about a friendship between two boys neither of whom i care about or feel any connection to. There are various moments of entertainment that sparked some interest but for the most part it is just boring and no amount of recurring imagery, symbolism or themes about abuse of authority and so on can make up for that to me.
Basically, I did not enjoy this novel. Perhaps because I had to read it in school, that diminished the joy of reading How Many Miles to Babylon, but maybe it's due to it being short and basic and uneventful. The whole atmosphere ranges somewhere between arrogant and mentally unstable and incredibly dull; the characters are bare and shallow but for the tragic events at the end of the book. Sure, Alec was kind of attached to Jerry from the start but apart from his life being pretty much un-worthwh ...more
This is one of those books that I can see is good, and why, but I don't particularly like it. It just didn't strike a chord for me — Alec's relationships with his parents dominated the narrative for me, rather than the relationship with Jerry; this clearly was not what the author intended, is not where the "delicacy and power" that Siria mentioned resides, and meant that I was paying attention to literally the wrong story.

Jerry just didn't catch my gaze as a reader. I honestly would have missed
In rebuttal of those who rave about a picture telling a thousand words, I give you Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? Despite a page extent that runs at just under 150, it’s an immense, almost overwhelming read. Johnston’s style is sharply laconic, and her ability to pinpoint and tease out those horrible, selfish mannerisms and attitudes that are so painfully inherent in human relationships, but which are so often glossed over, is up there with Fitzgerald’s (who did the same with adm ...more
Angela Young
A brilliant novel. I gather from Jennifer Johnston's British Council website that she - at least in her earlier novels, and this is her third - found it difficult to write about the Troubles in Ireland directly, so she wrote about other troubles instead (in this case the First World War). And in this novel she addresses the secret - and some say homoerotic although I thought of it as a non-sexual very close - friendship between opposites: Alec, heir to th ...more
A. Mary Murphy
A love story, really, between boyhood friends, on either side of the Protestant/Catholic class divide, who end up in WWI. Each enlists for his own reasons, and if we know anything of the Irish experience of WWI, we know before we start to read that this will not be a happy story. The characters are solid, dense, and in the short space it takes to tell her story, Johnston creates a cast of perhaps ten characters who elicit powerful responses from a reader--love Alec, love Jerry, loathe Sergeant B ...more
Stevie Carroll
A short but powerful novella about friendship, told by Alec as he awaits his fate in a cell; being an officer he is allowed writing materials, unlike the men who faced court martial (as we discover when his story unfolds). Definitely recommended to those interested in the period.
Sarah Harakeh
How Many Miles To Babylon? is a well written and powerful story about a friendship that defeats all the obstacles it faces. Jennifer Johnston delivers a meaningful message through this book that tries to give a hope for peace in Ireland, where the story takes place. The book subtly satirizes wars, politics and the conflicts that the society in Ireland lived based on religion. It shows that it does not matter what your doctrine is, whether you are a Protestant or Catholic, rich or poor, deep insi ...more
Of Mice and Men set in the First World War, and dipped in such a thick mix of clichés that it ends up having the depth and gravitas of a Michael Morpurgo war story. Shame.
While WWI was more horrific for the soldiers than portrayed here, Jennifer Johnston provides plenty of realism to deal with the mundane waiting and fear felt by the soldiers in the trenches. She also does a fine job of delineating the blinders that the commanding officers had. The novel centers around the friendship between Alec and Jerry, Irishmen from different classes, backgrounds and political views; a relationship that is built slowly yet convincingly. The tragic end is foreshadowed early i ...more
Niamh Kavanagh
Was it just me or did anyone else sense some sexual chemistry between Jerry and Alec ?
Short, well written, story about two Irish friends from different classes who find themselves unexpectedly joining the British army at the beginning of the First World War. We know from the beginning that things have not gone well for Alec as he is writing the story from his cell. But what has he done? The lads' friendship is the main focus of the book, cutting across the class divide, but it is also about their dreams of a future that was sadly not to be for many young men at that time, and the ...more
A largely anti-climatic tale, however the ending is worth the wait.
I first read this at school; recently re-read it. Amazing and powerful book. What stops it from being a five star is the slightly one dimensional natures of the main characters - though I suspect thats intentional.

Set in the dying days of the ascendancy, this book reveals the tragedy and frivolity of both the ascendancy class and participation in the war. I would hate for it to be remembered as a war novel - its much more than that. Its a startling investigation of the Anglo-Irish class (The pr
I actually really enjoyed this it was fab
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Jennifer Johnston is an Irish novelist and playwright.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.
More about Jennifer Johnston...
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