25 April 2009

How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

The first thing that must be said about this novel is, quite simply, that it's beautiful. There's something so eloquent and moving about the prose, it's just gorgeous. I don't generally really visualize scenes while reading, but there was something so evocative about the writing in this book, I could practically smell the air. The best way I can think of to describe the experience of reading it is: it's like lying beside a lake at night, looking at the stars and talking to a very close friend. It sounds strange, I know, but this book really got me on some kind of sensory level. 

The prose, I would describe as Beckettian - not in the sense one usually hears it (which generally seems to mean anything "weird"), but in the sense of that peculiar detached voice that is simultaneously incredibly poignant and strangely elegant while being immersed in the shit of life. There's a kind of hushed reverence alongside an awareness of horror, I don't even know how to explain it. It's also, of course, darkly humorous while being frequently tragic. This is the kind of sentimentality I can really appreciate - not cheap and treacly, but rather more hard-won and bittersweet.

The plot is also quite fascinating. It's actually kind of a modern take on Of Mice and Men, but with Irish soldiers fighting in World War 1. So one thing that's interesting about the book is that it depicts the experience of Irish soldiers fighting on the British side - something you've probably not spent much time thinking about (I sure as hell haven't), but it's a knotty issue, fighting alongside your oppressors. It's also, more generally, the story of two boyhood friends, and even more so, a kind of coming of age story of a really compelling narrator. 

Really, a riveting book. Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your review. This is one of my favourite novels. In 1982 it was filmed for TV with a very young Daniel Day-Lewis.

Best wishes
Gabriele Diwald

Tyas said...

Really wanna read this novel. Poor me, I cant find it.

culture_vulture said...

Oh wow, somehow I missed Gabriele's comment, so apologies to her, and thanks for the information - I wonder if it's available on video?
Tyas, I don't know where you are geographically, but amazon seems to have used copies of the book for as little as $2!

Anonymous said...

Another year gone by. ;-)
I've purchased the film here: http://www.vicpine.co.uk/How-Many-Miles-To-Babylon.htm
It's not the best quality, but for me it was worth it and it's kind of appropriate for the film.

GD said...

Last comment was mine :-)
Have a nice day,