book review: 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.