I’ve seen John Boyne’s name on book covers for years, but it wasn’t until so many readers adored The Heart’s Invisible Furies that I felt like I was really missing out by not having picked up any of his titles. Admittedly, I still haven’t gotten around to The Heart’s Invisible Furies, though I do have a copy at the ready. But when his 2018 release, A Ladder to the Sky came out, and when BOTM made it available as a November selection, I could not put off reading some of Boyne’s work any longer. So I read A Ladder to the Sky at the end of November… and I kind of wish I hadn’t.
About the book: Maurice Swift started his adult life as a waiter in a hotel restaurant, where he had the good fortune of waiting on a prestigious author who graciously (if somewhat selfishly) took Maurice under his literary wing. Maurice has aspirations of his own literary fame, but isn’t having much luck with writing- his style is competent, but he cannot think up any original plots. Thanks to his new mentor, he is able to pick up a trick or two from inside the publishing industry… and he finds his first great plot while mixing with great writers. The problem is that the idea didn’t originate in his own brain, and so his dubious career as an author is built on stolen plots that he passes them off as his own.
“This is what a writer does. Uses his or her imagination. Tries to understand how it feels to be alive in a moment that never existed with a person who never lived, saying words that were never spoken aloud.”
Unfortunately, I think this was a bad case of right-author-wrong-book. Though Boyne’s skill at shaping and narrating a difficult story shone through clearly, A Ladder to the Sky was not a particularly enjoyable reading experience for me. You know those characters people talk about loving to hate? Apparently I just hate them. Maurice is so awful, selfish, and manipulative that instead of appreciating his terribleness I found myself so often uncomfortable with his actions to an extent that I had to put the book down and was reluctant to pick it up again.
One thing that helped me make it through is that this book is divided into three main segments, and between those segments are shorter “interludes.” I liked the interludes better than any of the larger sections- the first one is told from a perspective far enough away from Maurice’s poison that I could observe him more objectively. The second interlude does show Maurice’s perspective, but as a largely powerless child; I did enjoy seeing him discovering his own personality and finding his limits (or lack thereof) at that stage of his life. But the three main sections built up horror after horror.
“I’d only been at their table a few minutes but had already managed to insult them both and make them each feel like shit, so I was beginning to feel that my work there was done.”
Part of my problem with the larger narrative sections is that they’re a bit predictable. All I knew going into this book is that Maurice is an ambitious writer who steals plots. This is not a spoiler; I don’t know why anyone would pick up this book without knowing that part of the premise and feeling intrigued about it (excepting the readers who pick it up because it has Boyne’s name on the cover; perhaps if I was a fan of his previous works I would have had a different reaction to this one, hence regretting picking this one as my first Boyne novel). But by knowing that Maurice is a plot stealer, I spent the entire first section seeing right through his flimsy ruse and spotted the soon-to-be-stolen plot immediately. Then I spent the entire second section knowing he was about to do it again, and seeing exactly where the new plot was coming from. By the time I got to the third section, there was absolutely no mystery in seeing Maurice falling into the trap of a new version of his own game.
The dramatic irony keeps the narration interesting even when the plot seems obvious, though. Maurice is constantly telling hypocritical lies and disturbing half-truths to characters who either don’t understand or can’t do anything to stop him. Maurice’s fate in the final section is so rewarding that I couldn’t look away despite its transparency. This is a book to read for the character study rather than surprise– I just didn’t want to study the character of Maurice.
” ‘You’ve let me down, Maurice, you really have.’ ‘Well, I wouldn’t take it personally,’ he replied. ‘I’ve done that to quite a few people over the years.’ “
But another saving grace was the interesting insight into the publishing industry. Of course this is a work of fiction, but it’s so amusing to see how even fictional writers and editors and publishers pursue their professions and interact with each other inside the small sphere of that world. Anyone interested in writing is probably going to appreciate the literary references. Even if the publishing industry on display here is biased and corrupt.
“The irony was that, in 1939, I had seen something beautiful and told its creator that it was a travesty. And now, almost fifty years later, I had read something terrible and, when asked, would surely praise it. Really, it was unconscionable behavior.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I experienced some extreme ups and downs with this book, but I am absolutely looking forward to picking up another John Boyne novel. I’ve got The Heart’s Invisible Furies on my shelf and it’s calling my name. I think any Boyne book that doesn’t include Maurice Swift is going to be a hit for me and I can’t wait to test that theory.
What’s a book you’ve read that you didn’t like but made you think you’d like the author anyway?
The Literary Elephant