book review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

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A LADDER TO THE SKY by John Boyne
★★★★☆
Doubleday, August 2018 (UK)

 

I couldn’t have gone into A Ladder to the Sky with higher expectations; John Boyne set the bar pretty high with his last novel The Heart’s Invisible Furies – my favorite 2017 release and easily one of the best books I’ve ever read – and though it doesn’t quite live up to that standard, A Ladder to the Sky was every bit as enthralling as I hoped it would be. The novel follows Maurice Swift, a young aspiring writer who desires success at all costs, and though he writes decently, he isn’t able to come up with plots of his own. So he sets out to steal other people’s stories, at higher and higher costs.

I guess I’ll start out with my main criticism, then – I expected (perhaps erroneously) that this book was going to be an examination of the heights you can reach if you’re willing to sacrifice your soul, but in reality Maurice doesn’t seem to have much of a soul to begin with. Though he’s a well-constructed character, I did find that he was more of a flat-out villain than the antihero that I had been hoping for. This only became an issue for me in the final section, when some of his actions became almost unrealistically evil, and were never morally grappled with in a thorough enough way to warrant my own engagement or emotional investment in this character’s arc.

And I know that seems like a pretty big gripe, but despite the fact that A Ladder to the Sky is centered around Maurice, the majority of the book isn’t told from his perspective. The novel begins with Erich Ackermann, an old and respected German novelist, who confides a secret in Maurice who then goes on to exploit this to further his own career. Each section unfolds similarly; a character recalls his or her own relationship with Maurice, and each story is in its own way horrifying and heart-wrenching. The section narrated by Erich did end up being my favorite, despite the fact (or perhaps because of the fact?) that Boyne recycles a character arc that anyone who’s read The Absolutist will quickly recognize. I was still highly invested in Erich, and I did quickly become intrigued by Maurice, who, despite the aforementioned complaints, is a thoroughly captivating figure. I guess I just wanted to end up rooting for him, not against him. But I don’t know what that says about me.

Perhaps the most delightful element of this novel is the meta commentary on the publishing industry. There were moments that I found jaw dropping because I couldn’t quite believe that Boyne was bold enough to publish something like this. I mean, of course it’s fiction. But we all know that the kind of schmoozing and chronic ladder climbing you find in this novel are hardly artistic inventions. It was nice, though, to read something this honest (if embellished for fiction, of course). It was also a pretty drastic departure from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but I honestly think that’s a good thing; one of my favorite things about Boyne is that he’s not the kind of author to write the same book over and over. A Ladder to the Sky was fun and moving and unexpected, and I’d encourage anyone to read it.

20 thoughts on “book review: A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

  1. Great review! This sounds so intriguing, especially the commentary about the publishing industry. And the plot stealing. Or, you know, basically everything. I will have to pick this one up, but first The Heart’s Invisible Furies!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cannot wait for you to read The Heart’s Invisible Furies! I hope I’m not hyping it up too much but that book really is something special. This one was excellent, but it had a very high standard to live up to!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, this sounds great. Especially what you said about him being a flat out villain, because that makes the book so much more intriguing to me. (but I will get to THIF first because of reasons of course)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think expectations played a huge role in my weird relationship with that – I am so used to Boyne’s fantastic antiheroes (the protagonist of The Absolutist is TERRIBLE but one of my favorite characters who I love dearly, and the same goes for the protagonist of THIF really) so I was just expecting that to be the case with Maurice. Really really looking forward to your thoughts on his books.

      Liked by 1 person

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