A Ladder to the Sky

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 17 Aug 2018

Member Reviews

I make a point of not reading the description of a novel when I start a book and so I thought this book was going to be about Erich Ackermann and I was not sure how much I was going to 'enjoy' this book while reading Part I. But then it became apparent the main character was Maurice Swift and I was drawn in to the amazing writing, the complex characters, the story itself and I was captivated - horrified, enthralled and dumbfounded all at once. And what is more, the book was about books, plots and authors. I can't recommend this book highly enough!
Many thanks to Netgalley/John Boyne/Random House UK for a digital copy of this title. All opinions expressed are my own.
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How far can the ambition of a writer corrupt a person’s life?

This excellent novel is a deep, dark psychological thriller brilliantly crafted to include many fascinating, colourful characters evolving some into loss and oblivion, some on the light side and one into the depths of psychological depravity.

The story is about writers, successfully published authors - as well as authors who fail. It is about who has talent and who does not have any talent. Those who don't have talent can accept it and move on or allow their failure to swirl them into a vortex of jealousy that has no boundaries. Yet if someone is so profoundly psychologically wrong how far the jealousy will go? It takes a scholar doing some research to unfold the horrendous layers bit by bit in a tense, unstoppable, captivating read.

Maurice asked Theo: “And you – you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you? That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.”

Why did he not just follow the talent he did have? He could not because of his other more profound, darker, more sinister talent that had a stronger hold on him even to the end.

Read it! Brilliant!

BonnieK

Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.
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5★
“‘You want to be what?’ ‘I want to be a success,’ he replied, and perhaps I should have heard the deep intent in his tone and been frightened by it.

‘It’s all that matters to me. I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed.’”

Do you remember The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde? A handsome young fellow sells his soul to the Devil so he can stay young and beautiful forever while a portrait of him will show the signs of his pleasure-filled, amoral life. As he carries on with his vices, he notices the picture is changing and locks it away where nobody else will see it.

The difference here is that Maurice Swift doesn’t have a soul to sell; he's simply a pretty straightforward, narcissistic psychopath. And “pretty” is an important part of the description. He’s a beautiful boy who charms both men and women, and he makes the most of it. He has no particular preference, and he’s not interested in sex. He’s interested only in influence. Climbing that ladder. 

Maurice comes from a country background and has no intention of being a farmer or a miner. He wants to be famous. Working as a young waiter in Berlin, he meets Erich, an author who’s just won a prestigious writing award. The author is gay and obviously attracted to Maurice, who flatters the older man with praise and questions, saying he wants to be a writer too, not something most older writers want to hear, but in Erich’s case, he feels a little thrill of excitement. 

Maurice is happy to encourage Erich's interest and agrees to be his assistant for some national and international book tours. He doesn’t come right out and ask the question that all authors seem to dread “Where do you get your ideas?”, but Maurice does say maybe he should be a musician and just write some words and let someone else do the melody. [That has certainly worked well for years for Bernie Taupin, who writes the words which Elton John so successfully puts to music.] 

Erich reminds him that he is too young to think he’s a failure. He just needs to look around. 

“There’s something in all our pasts that we wouldn’t want to be revealed. Look around the lobby the next time you’re there and ask yourself, what would each of these people prefer that I didn’t know about them? And that’s where you’ll find your story. A hotel can be a fascinating place.”

We watch Maurice go through life like a vampire, or maybe more like a spider, pulling people into his web, mesmerising them with his charm and beauty, then sucking them dry of whatever he can get before shedding their hollow shells from his life. Mostly he chooses men, and knows how to lead them on just enough that they will do anything to stay near him. Erich sees this right in the beginning.

“. . . as he talked I simply watched him, feeling rejuvenated by the presence of this boy in my life while all the time trying not to think about how painful it would be when he inevitably departed it again.”

Maurice has no portrait disintegrating in the attic, and his behaviour can’t be said to be soul-destroying, except to others, because he doesn’t seem to have one. He learns from the best, or the worst, as the case may be. Dash Hardy is a famous American novelist who remarks to Erich that he hasn’t read Erich’s prize-winner because he doesn’t read non-Americans, but Erich shouldn’t be offended.

“‘I don’t read women either and I make sure to say so in every interview as it always ensures that I receive the maximum amount of publicity. The politically correct brigade loses their collective minds and before I know it I’m on the front of all the literary pages.’

‘You’re a controversialist then,’ . . . 

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’m a fiction writer with an expensive apartment overlooking Central Park West. And I need to sell books in order to pay the co-op fees.’”

Whatever it takes! Maurice gets away with being a bad boy because he’s so attractive, and if anyone complains, other people just figure it’s a case of sour grapes because Maurice has moved on from them. In fact, he moves on to Dash Hardy, who becomes besotted with him, as so many do.

Except for Gore Vidal. That is my favourite section of the book. Gore (always referred to by his first name here) was known for being controversial and rude, except that he was a genuinely brilliant man, and not a parasitic leech, like Maurice Swift. He recognises instantly what the relationship is between Maurice and Gore’s dear old friend Dash. 

Gore remarks about a sample of Maurice’s writing that he has a good sense of place, but “Perhaps you’re a little too fond of alliteration and you’ve clearly never met a noun that you didn’t think would look better all dressed up in an adjective.”

Gore tells Maurice he gets it - the power of beauty. He says he was much the same as a youth, but “better looking, of course”, which Maurice admits was true. “I’ve seen the pictures.”

Maurice goes on through life, captivating useful people while repelling readers. He sinks lower and lower, becoming increasingly hungry and desperate to fulfil his two ambitions – to become a published novelist and to be a father. 

He is a loathsome, fascinating creature, and I’m delighted that John Boyne created him. I hate to think that any one person might have inspired this. Not Gore Vidal, I suspect, because he came from a background of great privilege and was related to, and good friends with, JFK and Jackie Kennedy. But Boyne must have to do the book tours and meet all the “where do you get your ideas” people. 

No matter. I’m just glad Maurice Swift came to my attention, and I recommend him to anyone else interested in a fascinating character. Near the end, Boyne has Maurice refer to an old proverb that says ambition is like setting a ladder to the sky – pointless. Maybe so, but this book certainly isn’t.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House / Transworld Publishers for the review copy from which I’ve quoted.

P.S. For another wonderful novel about a completely different kind of writer (although Arthur is also gay), I recommend another new favourite, Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Andrew Sean Greer. These two books would make great bookends, and I love them both. 

[I reviewed “Less” here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...]
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I love John Boyne's adult fiction and this is no exception. It doesn't seem that long ago that I read his last novel (The Heart's Invisible Furies) but it has been over a year! 

This is a very dark tale of one man's ambition and his desire to succeed at any cost. Maurice is a hugely unlikeable character but if you don't mind that then you will love to hate him!
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Maurice Swift is one of life’s takers. ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne is the story of his life, told mostly by a series of people he meets, spends time with, has relationships with. Note that I don’t say ‘and who he loves’, because Maurice Swift loves only himself. He is single-minded and does what he needs to do to get on and get what he wants; he wants to be a major novelist and, oddly for such a self-obsessed person, a father. I read the book in a strange state of tension wondering to what lows he would next sink, waiting for him to get his just desserts.
Boyne’s novels are always thought-provoking and this is no different. But I found it a difficult novel to read in that Maurice is not the sort of person you want to know. He lies, dissembles, steals, discriminates, copies, exploits and basically sucks dry a person until, when he has got all he needs, he moves on. We first encounter Maurice in West Berlin in 1988. The sixth novel of sixty six year old Erich Ackermann has won a prize and, on the subsequent publicity tour, he notices a young waiter in the hotel bar. Maurice introduces himself as a fan and mentions he wants to be a writer too. He becomes Ackermann’s assistant for six months as they travel Europe on Ackermann’s book tour. Maurice allows Erich to look longingly at him but does not allow him to touch, instead he encourages Erich to tell a story from his youth. As Erich says, “This was a part of my life that I’d locked away for many decades, never confiding the story in a single person.”
A short Interlude follows Part One, told by Gore (later revealed as American author Gore Vidal) from his Italian villa La Rondinaia. By now Maurice’s debut novel has been published and well received. But Gore is wiser than Erich and sends Maurice on his way. Part Two moves forward a few years and Maurice is married. This is Edith’s story. She has published her first novel to much acclaim, is writing a second and is a creative writing tutor department in Norwich. In contrast, her husband is struggling to complete a new novel and reacts badly to pointed questioning by Edith’s students. Maurice does not handle failure well and Edith fears his mood swings and cold reactions to her. She does not share her novel, her ideas or her drafts but is sensitive to his mood swings. Until one day his mood changes. Given Maurice’s history, I knew what was going to happen but how it happened was unexpected. Boyne has created a nasty villain, arrogant, with a sense of entitlement; but believable. Haven’t we all known a bully who sees what he wants and takes it as of right?
We don’t see directly inside Maurice’s head until well into the second half of the novel. Now living in New York with his son Daniel, he is editor and owner of ‘Stori’, an exclusive literary magazine dedicated to short stories. Given the publicity with his latest novel, ‘The Tribesman’, Maurice and ‘Stori’ are fashionable and many unproven writers submit their stories to him. When he is called to his son’s school because seven-year-old Daniel has hit a girl who kissed him, for the first time we hear a story from Maurice’s schooldays and the beginnings of his plagiarism. The ending is brilliant, and most unexpected.
This is a novel about plagiarism, theft, honour or rather the lack of it, and writing, wrapped up in a plot that will make you gasp out loud as the psychological twists tighten.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/
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A brilliant and compelling story, it utterly gripped me. It took me to the edge of the cliff and left me dangling! The characters were so wonderfully layered and complicated that as it twisted and turned, I happily consumed it all.
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An enjoyable read with an intelligent and interesting narrative style. I preferred the flashbacks to the present day accounts but there wasn’t a huge gulf between the two.
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Maurice Swift wants to be a writer. It doesn't matter that he isn't particularly gifted, because he has access to a great story. Erich Ackerman meets Maurice in a hotel in West Berlin in 1988 - and so begins Erich's fall from grace and Maurice's meteoric rise. 
Maurice works his way through writers at an astonishing rate. He's a narcissist, I think. He needs the admiration of others and doesn't care how he gets it, and this manifests itself;f in the need to write books, be recognised as a respected award winning writer and make lots of money. 
Not wanting to give anything away, but he does some really immoral, terrible things, and doesn't to have any guilt at all. He's an awful person. I don't know why a character like this can make such a good book. I can, actually. This book is so well written. I felt empathy for those he swindles out of their stories, and Maurice is a fascinating character. The reader is drawn to him, just as those poor writers are. I wanted to hate him, but just couldn't. 
I loved this book and I've already started recommending it to everyone I know! 
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy of this wonderful book.
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I don’t normally read books by the same author within the space of a few weeks but after enjoying ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’ by John Boyne so much in July, I was very keen to read his latest novel ‘A Ladder to the Sky’. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring young writer who meets moderately successful novelist Erich Ackermann in Berlin in the late 1980s. Erich becomes infatuated with Maurice and reveals a long-held secret from his youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice later publishes a novel based on Erich’s secret to great critical acclaim but struggles to follow the success of his debut. He can write average prose but ideas, plots and characters don’t come naturally to him at all, so he goes in search of other people’s stories, resorting to extreme measures in order to pass them off as his own work.

As with ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’, Boyne moves easily between biting satire and tragedy. On the satirical side, he sends up the pretentious side of the literary world brilliantly, particularly the publishing industry’s obsessions with awards, sales, reputation and petty rivalries, raising several ethical questions along the way about plagiarism, blurring non-fiction and fiction and the origins of ideas and who can take credit for them. Maurice’s stint as editor of a literary magazine is particularly well done and brief cameos of Gore Vidal and Maude Avery, the latter a character from ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’, are a nice touch. On the more serious side, few authors write about shame, guilt, embarrassment and unrequited love or lust as poignantly as Boyne does and the first part in which Erich reveals the secret from his past is very affecting.

Maurice is a slippery antihero and his psychopathic behaviour oscillating between charming and ruthless is believably portrayed by Boyne even if his crimes end up becoming a bit far-fetched towards the end. There were times when I wondered why Maurice didn’t seek a much more lucrative career in something like tabloid journalism where his talent for exploiting the stories of vulnerable people could have earned him a great deal of money. However, it is clear that he is attracted by the mythical status and romanticised lifestyle of being a celebrated novelist and will go to any lengths to achieve his ambition no matter who has to pay the ultimate price along the way.

’A Ladder to the Sky’ is a very entertaining and compelling piece of psychological literary fiction, so long as you don’t mind having your credulity stretched ever so slightly in places. Many thanks to Random House UK, Transworld for sending me a review copy of ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ via NetGalley.
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What do you do when you are ambitious but don’t have the skills? You steal, of course. You do anything to achieve your goal, and everything including people become the means to an end. That’s what Maurice Swift does in John Boyne’s latest “A Ladder to the Sky.” 

We first meet the devastatingly handsome Maurice Swift as a young man when he encounters Erich, an ageing but well-known writer.  Erich is irresistibly attracted to the young man and is almost as if he is under a spell when he first sees Maurice who is a waiter at the restaurant when he goes for dinner. Erich gets acquainted and very soon he is enthralled. 

“I simply watched him, feeling rejuvenated by the presence of this boy in my life while all the time trying not to think about how painful it would be when he inevitably departed again.”

Erich becomes so besotted that he finds himself revealing things he had long kept hidden even to himself. He dredges out buried muck from his past and shows it all to Maurice who is always taking notes, even during their conversations, in a “pale blue Leuchtturm 1917 with numbered pages and a ribbon band,” that he carries around. 

This is one of our first clues to what Maurice is really up to. A few pages in we find out the real purpose behind the jottings - Maurice takes Erich’s story and converts it into a bestselling novel. Shocking yet not shocking. It’s something common enough as history has shown us. Yet, Maurice disturbs us with his repetitiveness. He is like a hunter for golden words, an opportunist who stops at nothing as we find out as the novel progresses. 

Maurice is one of the most appallingly intriguing characters I have come across in recent times. He makes it clear from the outset that he has two goals in life – to be a success and to become a father. The two goals sit uncomfortably together in the length of a single sentence but that is what Maurice is about. He makes his audience squirm and he takes great pleasure in their discomfiture. All he cares about is his ladder to the sky and he builds that ladder by making other people’s stories his own. 

I cannot go on to describe more of him without intertwining it with the latter half of the book, which would give away some of the deliciousness of the story. For this book is like a slab of dark, bitter chocolate. You devour it with a slight grimace on your face but lick every bit of it in the end because it is satisfying. Especially when you are smug in the comfort of watching other people drawn to Maurice like bees to honey and knowing that you never will be because you know what he really is. 

This is where I stopped to ask myself – isn’t there a bit of Maurice in all of us then? Why did I enjoy this ultimately unsettling and darkly disturbing novel so much? It does comment on the politics of prize giving and the publishing world in general. It also reads like a critique of the process of writing itself at times, which was interesting. But my brain was asking for more of Maurice. It was like watching a dramatic soap opera on television – lots of unbelievable and unethical stuff, some of it slightly farfetched but enough to still make your eyes widen and jaw slack.

It’s only in the latter half that the pace of the book slows with the coming of Daniel and the introduction of Maurice’s work at Stori. I wished there was a little more of Maurice that we knew. What was his childhood like, for instance? We never meet his parents or his family and we don’t hear from Maurice in the first person, we don’t get inside his head, until much later. 

That said, Maurice continues to engage and intrigue till the end.

 “…if your story is not engaging…then it simply won’t work.”

This may not rank as my top favourite among Boyne’s novels but he does make it work. Splendidly. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House UK for sending me an ARC!
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Maurice Swift is an aspiring writer who jumps at the opportunity to become novelist Erich Ackerman’s personal assistant. Intent on doing whatever it takes to succeed as an author, Swift has something of a talent for inhabiting other people’s stories without much thought for the consequences.

A Ladder to the Sky is a captivating read about obsession, betrayal and the lengths some people will go to in order to keep their “good name”.
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I've read a couple of John Boyne's adult novels and really loved them, so I was really looking forward to this - then it fell flat. It just left me cold. I didn't feel engaged, or care about any of the characters.. It's easy to say 'it didn't grab me' but I'm trying to figure out why.

I didn't like the main character - you could say he was 'deliciously' evil,  and revel in his cunning, manipulation and ambition but I found him just plain irritating.
The format didn't help either. Telling each part of the story from a different point of view made it choppy and hard to settle in to. There were a couple of times I felt like giving up at the end of a section, as I didn't feel the story was advancing anywhere. 

I'm not sure whether two stars seems harsh or over generous - I DID finish the book; I wouldn't read it again; I'll only recommend it to anyone with the warning of 'everyone else seems to think this is great but I think it's rubbish. Tell me what you think. Is it them or me?'
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Following on from The Heart's Invisible Furies, this is another cracker from John Boyne. Compulsively readable and full of drama, tragedy and humour, A Ladder to the Sky is immensely enjoyable.

The book centres around the life of Maurice Swift, a man who ruthlessly climbs the literary ladder over several decades. Swift is a truly memorable character - ambitious, ruthless, sociopathic, 
 and charming. He cares little for how his actions affect others and is an all-round bad egg. And yet...I still kind of liked him, some of the time! I think despite the terrible things he says and does there is still something to relate to in Maurice.  Or perhaps I just have sociopathic tendencies myself!

As Swift manipulates his way upwards, we meet others who unintentionally aid his ascent, including Erich, a German writer with a secret to hide and Edith, a talented novelist. 

The book is split into 3 sections with the first two told from the point of view of Erich and Edith, and the third from Maurice's own point of view.

I zipped through this and thoroughly enjoyed it. Boyne makes it intentionally easy to see what each section is building too and this serves to heighten the reader's tension as they close in on the inevitable unjust or tragic denouements.

Highly recommended.
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A Ladder to ther Sky by John Boyne is a character driven novel which was thought-provoking and a wonderful psychological drama of cat and mouse.
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I loved this book from the very first page until the very last sentence. John Boynes is a genius at telling a story. This is a book that I will recommend for years. Well done.
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If you loved Hearts Invisible Furies because Cyril was so loveable then you could be in for a rude shock when you meet Maurice Swift.    They're at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to likeability.   Who's Maurice Swift you might ask?   He's the protagonist in John Boynes latest novel Ladder To The Sky.    He's incredibly good looking, he's  bursting at the seams with ambition but this guy would stop at nothing - and I do mean nothing - to achieve his lifes ambition of becoming an accomplished author.   

"There are people who will sacrifice anyone and anything to get ahead, after all".   

This guy definitely fits that description.     To some extent he's self aware  - he knows he can write but recognises his weakness is coming up with ideas.  In other ways he was completely delusional justifying his own atrocious behaviour towards others when they had something he wanted.   The thing he always wanted was a  good idea and he had no compunction about taking other people's stories.    Initially I was shocked by the way he treated people.   My shock soon turned to outrage but as the book progressed I started to wonder if pehaps Maurice was supposed to be a humourous character.   So I lightened up, went with the flow, and enjoyed the journey.

Though I thoroughly disliked Maurice and kept hoping he'd get what he deserved, I enjoyed the story.    I was entertained by the literary shenanigans and powerplays - exaggerated surely?     I laughed when Boyne had Marice pick up a Maud Avery novel Like to the Lark  in a bookstore visit.  And one last thought.    I'm sure many of my GR friends would agree with this sentiment  "Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up." .   Personally I'd need decades and it still wouldn't be enough.    

My reading time is precious and though I didn't love this book the way I loved HIF's I'm certainly not sorry to have read it.   My thanks to Random House UK, Transworld Publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity of reading this digital ARC in exchange for an honest review.
3.5 stars rounded up on Goodreads
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Actual rating 4.5/5 stars.

I had heard of the prowess of Boyne's writing but, having never actually experienced it for myself before, was blown away by his cunning social commentary, stunning exposure of landscape, and vision of the power-hungry and the self-serving.

This is a tale that shifts in perspectives, across decades, and through continents as it explores the life of one individual. Who this individual actually is, is not immediately apparent as we meet him only through the introduction of another. These other characters litter the novel and all provide their perspective in exposing to the reader the main attraction - an individual marked by his lack of compassion and his hunger for ambition.

This character is Maurice Swift. He drains the vitality from these individuals before disposing of them once has had drunk his fill, which likens him to the reader in that respect, who abandons their host in favour of another once his particular brand of insight has been garnered.

This exploration of one character also exposes society and how it differs as the decades shift. the treatment of and the reactions to homosexuality, wealth and decadence, the Nazi fascist regime, and the life of a writer are just some of the other topics that Boyne provides his commentary on and all combine to this make a riveting and suspenseful novel of epic proportions.
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Story of a ruthless manipulator who will stop at nothing (nothing!) to achieve his dream of becoming a published author and winner of The Prize. Tremendous fun as long as you accept it for what it is - an acerbic, melodramatic satire of the literary world and unchecked ambition.
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This is a reasonably compelling and certainly a dark exploration of ambition, and how far anyone will go to achieve their goals. Maurice Swift has only one desire – to be a writer. But writers need ideas and unfortunately Maurice doesn’t have any. So he decides to steal other people’s. This leads him to some very questionable acts of literary theft, and some even more questionable ways of using other people for his own ends. There’s some very good storytelling here, and some good writing. Certainly the premise is an interesting and thought-provoking one. Maurice himself is a fascinating character, and the reader has constantly to wonder whether he is misguided, immoral or perhaps completely amoral. He’s so manipulative that at times my credulity was stretched to the limit, though. I certainly enjoyed the book but it does have its problems. One is that there are simply too many subplots, some of which are quite unnecessary. For example, there’s a storyline concerning Edith’s (Maurice’s wife) sister and her divorce, which adds nothing to the narrative and in any case is too extreme to be true to life. Then, although we need Edith’s story and it is important we hear her point of view, the dialogue between her and Maurice is often clunky, and she seems to be addressing the reader rather than her husband. On the plus side, the slow reveal is well-paced as we gradually plumb the depths of Maurice's character. I also enjoyed the glimpses into the literary world with its rivalries and jealousies, and there’s a nice little cameo of Gore Vidal. A largely successful psychological drama with some interesting ideas, but a little overwritten and one which would have benefited from some editing.
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When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.

John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.

I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.

Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.
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