Literary Fiction

A Ladder to the Sky – John Boyne

13 August 2018
A Ladder to the Sky Book Cover A Ladder to the Sky
John Boyne
Doubleday UK
August 23, 2018

A psychological drama of cat and mouse, A Ladder to the Sky shows how easy it is to achieve the world if you are prepared to sacrifice your soul. If you look hard enough, you can find stories pretty much anywhere. They don't even have to be your own. Or so would-be writer Maurice Swift decides very early on in his career. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann gives him an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone more powerful than him. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell. Whether or not he should do so is another matter entirely. Once Maurice has made his name, he sets off in pursuit of other people's stories. He doesn't care where he finds them - or to whom they belong - as long as they help him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.


John Boyne has this exceptional ability to place words on a page with such soul and meaning, that immediately you are totally immersed in a delicately unwinding story. Nothing is forced, everything flows naturally. The characters are developed with marvellous believability whilst illustrating intriguing relationships and entertaining dialogue. The dialogue provides so much animation, conveying that touch of humour, irony or jealousy, or sexual teasing.

John skillfully develops a character Maurice Swift who has an obsessive ambition to be an accomplished and famous author, with both sales and literary recognition. The problem is that while he can form sentences with an acceptable level of skill, he possesses no imagination. With this lack of creativity, he hunts and forages for ideas and plots for his novel. The fascination with Maurice is that he is an extremely handsome man and he will use his physical appeal and charisma in his unscrupulous parasitic strategy to glean as much from other writers or publishers as possible.

Erich Ackermann is an author that has had a series of unsuccessful books but finally receives recognition as a prize winner. He is the first narrator of the novel and meets Maurice as a waiter in a restaurant and later invites Maurice on his book tour. Erich’s infatuation with Maurice is his weakness, and he recognises it so.

“Sitting there that day on a bench in the Caffarella Park, this twenty-two-year-old boy made me long to reveal my secrets in the most self-destructive way imaginable. I wanted to confide in him, to tell him my story.”

The story Erich tells Maurice in private is about his young adulthood in Germany just before the second world war, where he meets Oskar Gött, and again is captivated by a young man. Their friendship grows with Erich developing deeper feelings for Oskar and they become more and more aware of secrets they each harbour, including their views of the Nazi’s, their Jewish ancestry, their love of prohibited art and of course Erich’s homosexuality. When it’s revealed that Oskar has a girlfriend he has fallen in love with, Erich is spiteful, having previously out of pure jealousy, discredited his nude painting of her as vulgar and mediocre.

During Maurice’s travels with Erich, he meets Dash Hardy, who is to become the next obsequious victim of Maurice’s charms and the source of his next feeding ground. You can see in the pointed dialogue and interaction between Maurice and his ‘mentors’ the subtle swing from his position as protégé to becoming more dominant as they become less and less useful. “But once I had what I needed, why would I have stuck around?” Maurice will undertake this Machiavellian approach several times, cultivating relationships for his own gain, including a marriage to Edith and a son Daniel. However, as time passes, looks fade, and the carnage becomes apparent in the rearview mirror, the carnage that may be exposed.

An amazing book with wonderful storyline, characterisation and dialogue. A book that is totally captivating and a literary masterpiece.

I would like to thank Random House UK, Transworld Publishers and NetGalley, for an ARC version of ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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