Book Review | A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

Maurice Swift (a name laden with literary significance) is a monster. We don’t know this at first, of course. We encounter him through the eyes of aged novelist Erich Ackermann in the late ‘80s, and see him as a struggling young writer – decent enough prose but dire on plot. Erich reveals his attraction to Maurice, even though he is long past such things; he has never been intimate with anyone, in fact. The one friendship that might have been something – with the beautiful Oskar, back in Nazi-led Germany just before the outbreak of war – ended in dark circumstances.

In a moment of weakness, Erich reveals this to Maurice, who steals it and captures it for his debut novel. But then again, he was never told that this secret was revealed in confidence. Doesn’t a writer have the right to whatever material comes their way? And isn’t the “where do you get your ideas?” question infinitely tiresome?

Maurice’s wife, Edith, is also a writer. Slightly younger, with an acclaimed debut out and a lectureship at UEA, she is for a time the more successful of the two. But unable to provide Maurice with a son and heir, she has failed; and an accident leaves her unpublished manuscript ready to be pilfered.

John Boyne A Ladder to the Sky

Theo Field is a young student interested in writing a thesis, and then literary biography, on Maurice’s work. As they meet in pubs – an older Maurice having developed a weekly routine – he uncovers Maurice’s secrets. Maurice is half-aware, and half-not, about how much he’s revealing; Theo’s resemblance to his dead son certainly doesn’t help matters.

Maurice is a delicious invention – pathological but in parts relatable. The alternating points-of-view – leaving Maurice’s own take on things until the very end – allow us to build up a picture of him, and unpleasant though it is, it’s also fascinating.

Boyne’s fondness for history is evident in the sections set in pre-war Germany, and there’s also the occasional nod to his other works – Maud Avery, Cyril’s adoptive mother in Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, is referenced, for example. It feels like a book that’s been burning for a while, a story that was waiting to be told. The focus on literary life might feel tiresome or amateurish for a writer penning their first or second novel; Boyne concentrating on it here feels both earned and informed.

This a delightful read, particularly for writers; its focus on idea-generation versus execution offers much food for thought, while its increasingly sinister tone adds a layer of thriller-ness to the story. Add this to your summer reading list – you won’t regret it.

A Ladder to the Sky will be in bookshops on 9th August.

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