Through the character of Alex, Johnston offers a picture of life in the Big House before its fall. The only child of a bleak marriage, Alex was brought up in the Big House of an Anglo Irish estate outside Dublin. It is an isolated and lonely existence and is made all the more unbearable when Alex is forced to discontinue his friendship with Jerry Crowe.
He finds himself confined to the world of his sparring parents; an ineffectual but genuine father and a cold, manipulative yet beautiful mother. The awful tension between two people at war with one another, and the effects of these hostilities on their son, is convincingly captured in the first part of the novel. By her own admission this may be due in part to Johnston's own experience of the break-up of her parent's marriage when she was a child and her own divorce from her first husband. As Alex faces his execution, he makes it clear that it is the combination of the expectations placed on him by his social class and his mother's rejection of him that have led to his impending death.
Alex's life has been marked by indecision and cowardice and, ironically, it is the one brave and decisive act of his life that both saves him and marks his end. Alex runs away from the social and personal isolation of life at home only to find it follows him to the trenches of Flanders. His friendship with Jerry isolates both of them and its warmth seems to be at odds with the coldness of war.
How Many Miles to Babylon is not merely another of the many post-war comments on the futility of war, because Johnston adds a new, specifically Irish, dimension to the picture. Through the characters of Alex and Jerry, Johnston seems to be suggesting that it is their Irishness that sets them...