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A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne


This is an excellent read. I love it when there is a really dark character who is utterly engrossed in their own warped agenda. And I love it even more when there is twist after twist it the plot that takes you to places you were never expecting. A Ladder to the Sky is set in the supposedly genteel world of writers. But where do writers get their ideas from?


This has to rank as one of my favourite books of the year so far. Our central character is called Maurice Swift. At the start of the book he is a young man working in a bar in Berlin who wants nothing more than to become a writer. He is also ruthless and manipulative. It is fair to say that he has one problematic failing as wannabe writer, he is not very good at inventing a plot.


In Berlin he is noticed by Erich Ackerman, a scholar and moderately successful writer who had exiled himself to Britain after the War. Erich falls for Maurice's youthful charm and good looks and offers him a role as his assistant, travelling to various literary festivals around Europe. For Maurice this is his dream entry into the world of literature. Over these weeks and months Maurice extracts a story from Erich about events just before the war and about a boy that Erich fell in love with. Maurice steals the old man's story and uses it himself, with no regard for Erich or the terrible impact it will have on him. So begins Maurice's career as a writer.


I don’t want to say any more about the plot, because the great joy of this book is the way the plot keeps twisting off in other directions. However, I do need to say something about the structure, which is brilliant.


Part I of the book is narrated by Erich, telling the story from his viewpoint and slowly building to a sudden and dramatic conclusion. This part is split up using the names of the cities that the two men visit around Europe. Next, there is then a short "Interlude" of about 40 pages which is narrated in the third person and tells of a visit by Maurice to the home of Gore Vidal on the Amalfi coast of Italy. The sudden insertion of real characters among the so far imaginary authors, is unexpected but lends the whole story a sense of truth.

Moving forwards in time, Part II is narrated by Edith Camberly. We are in Norwich in the east of England, where Edith is teaching creative writing at the university. This part is divided using the months of her year-long residency.

Then we have another interlude, again told in the third person, but this time we see Maurice living in New York and running a successful literary magazine.

And then the final Part is narrated by Maurice himself in old age, and is delineated by the names of various London pubs where he meets and talks to a young writer called Theo.

The structure charts Maurice's life and achievements through these different narrators and situations. The format is clever and interesting and we are never quite sure what direction everything is going to take in the next section. We need to keep reassessing the different characters and what is happening. I love the way this works and how it the format is constantly moving us forwards.


Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Doubleday, RRP $37

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