A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

This is a circular plot which you can work out once you have started to read the book, with the journey as the unknown for at least half the book.

Maurice Swift is a good writer but has no ideas, no plots or characters. His solution is to befriend a 66 year old professor who is a homosexual but has never had a relationship after being traumatised by a clumsy approach to his best friend when he was young. Maurice is a waiter in a restaurant in Berlin where Erich is eating on his book tour, having won a prestigious literary prize. Erich falls hopelessly in love with him and offers him a job as a secretary whilst he is on his prize tour. Maurice mines the relationship, teasing Erich the whole time, eliciting Erich’s deepest secret which he then writes as a novel. This has disastrous consequences for Erich.

Never mind. Maurice moves onto another author, then gets married and manages to steal another story, and it is at this point that the tension really ratchets up. We know more than the narrator and are begging her to leave him as she excuses his behaviour. From here on, because we know the outcome of the relationships he forms, the tension remains. Just before the end, in a very symmetrical move, he meets a young person who wants to interview him and because he is now on his own and an alcoholic, he depends upon this young man for company and understanding. The consequences are just and finally he does have a story to write.

A ladder to the sky is about ambition, reaching for the stars with the help of a ladder, and Maurice is one true climber willing to do anything to become a writer – well-known not obscure. The trouble is the ladder never ends and the fall is a very long one when it comes.

As each character is introduced, they narrate their own section which I enjoyed and helped to reveal the sociopathic nature of Swift’s character slowly. By the time we get to Edith and his marriage, we as the reader, are clued in. One of the best sections was when Maurice and Dash stayed at Gore Vidal’s house. Vidal realises what Maurice is doing and refuses to have any part to play in it. The dialogue is witty and viciously sharp and also proves to be a turning point in the book. Before meeting Vidal, Swift was a user of people, after meeting him he became something much worse.

The part I didn’t really understand is why Maurice wanted a child unless it was a person with more of an emotional attachment to the antihero, Swift. The child is necessary for the ending and perhaps that is why he is included so that the ending can be satisfactory. I am not really sure that either of those two possibilities is the real answer, though. Perhaps it is more to do with the depths of depravity that Swift will sink to to become famous.

You might also enjoy the following books by the same author The Heart’s Invisible Furies, The Echo Chamber, A Ladder to the Sky

If you liked the theme of authors stealing others’ stories, you might like Yellowface by RF Kuang

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