“A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne— A Ruthless Man

Boyne, John. “A Ladder to the Sky”, Hogarth, 2018.

A Ruthless Man

Amos Lassen

Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and has great desires for fame. He seems to have everything but what he needs to be famous—talent. He knows he does not have talent but he’s not about to let a detail like that stand in his way. After all, writers can find stories anywhere and they don’t need to be his own.

Maurice was a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988 and finds the perfect opportunity: a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann, a desperately lonely older writer. Maurice manages to tease out of Erich a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war. This gives him just what he needs to write his first novel.

Once Maurice tastes literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in keep the high it gives him. He moves from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vida to Manhattan and London and perfects his talent for deceit and manipulation by preying on the talented and vulnerable in his calculated and cold-blooded climb to the top. What he does not realize is that the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall.

 “A Ladder to the Sky” looks at Maurice, a relentlessly immoral man and a story thief who will steal your stories, and, in essence, your soul. Maurice can write but his stories are boring so he uses his physical beauty and charm to get to famous writers in order to steal from them. Maurice is a story thief, he uses people for their ideas and throws them away when he gets what he needs. He drains people’s souls and leaves them with nothing.

Erich Ackermann was Maurice’s first act of destruction. When he was done with Erich, he simply discarded him and moved onto his next victim doing whatever necessary to get the stories that he needs. Once he has achieved his first conquest, he continues to take and take and take. His story is told in three parts by three different narrators. It is hard not to be enthralled and charmed by Maurice and as much as I came to really abhor him , I was anxious to see what he would do next. The character of Maurice is brilliantly drawn and intriguing. Boyne’s writing is wonderful and his novel is intricately plotted and filled with multi-dimensional complex characters and even though we could predict how all of this would end, we could not predict how far Maurice would go for fame.

After meeting Gore Vidal which makes him uncertain of how far his looks can help him succeed, he moves from literary circle to literary circle, from the U.S. to London and all over the world, in search of his next opportunity. As he moves through his life, the stakes get higher and higher—until there’s nothing he won’t do for fame. He is a totally amoral character, and as much as we dislike him, we admire his cunning and ambition.

We are pulled into the story from the first page and stay engrossed until we close the covers. Boyne gives us an unforgettable protagonist who is both dangerous and irresistible and who shows us a cynical portrait of the literary world.




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