John Boyne is a prolific and popular author. A Ladder to the Sky is his eleventh novel for adults. Most people have heard of his YA Book, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas. I might be one of the few in the English-speaking world who haven’t read the book. And I don’t recall ever having watched the movie. I did begin one of his earlier novels The Thief of Time and abandoned it. It’s still there, though, sitting reproachfully on my bookshelf. I seem to recall the novel was very well received when it came out. It just didn’t suit me.
Last year, I chanced on The Hearts Invisible Furies which I purchased for my kindle. I loved it. So much so, that as soon as I heard of A Ladder to the Sky (sadly, I forget from where) I put my request in at the library and joined a very long queue for the chance to read it. So long, I was tempted to eschew my promise to myself that this year I’d read from my local library; the only exception being books I already own. I held out; my library list is, after all and to me at least, particularly engaging and varied. But when the email arrived telling me a copy was available for me to collect at last, I didn’t dally.
A Ladder to the Sky is a rollicking read, an enjoyable book. Those of you who have read it already might now be condemning me as some one with a rather jaded view on life; sick maybe. And fair enough. We are talking about one of the least likeable protagonists around. Maurice Swift is truly awful. His wife rightly calls him a psychopath. He’ll do anything, anything, to get his name on the cover of a book. There are parts of this book when I was sick to the stomach, when I had to jump ahead to read the end of the chapter because I feared the worst for his latest victim and wasn’t coping with the anxiety engendered by the rising tension.
There were other times when Boyne had me laughing to myself. The Swallow’s Nest section was a stand-out here. It’s a delight to read and, needless to say, in this fictional interpretation of the great 20th Century writer, Gore Vidal, Maurice meets his match. It is a particularly satisfying chapter at many levels.
For example: Maurice says to Gore,
“I wouldn’t want you to think I came here only to exploit your good nature.”
Gore couldn’t help but laugh at the suggestion. Many outrageous things had been said about him over the years, after all, thousands of unkind comments from the likes of Truman, Harper, Norman, Buckley, Tricky Dick, Updike and all the rest of them, but no one had ever had the bad manners to accuse him of having a good nature. He glanced towards Howard, who was smiling too as he poured more wine. (P108)
There was one little niggle which did bother me—why didn’t Maurice set a security code on his computer. At the time I thought to myself, okay, okay this is a little bit contrived. But now, a few days after finishing, I think, just maybe that Maurice made a deliberate choice over that. Hmm … an inaction which would suit the character entirely.
I couldn’t put this book down. And because of that, it was a reading pleasure that was over all too soon. But the good news is that John Boyne has another out. It’s a YA Book: My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The library has it on order.
Not everyone has enjoyed this novel. In the interest of balance click here for a review bordering on the scathing from the Irish Times.
Other reviews are much more favourable. The Guardian, for example, describes it as deliciously dark. I agree with that.
From the moment I accepted the invitation, I was nervous about returning to Germany.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne (2018) Penguin
Categories: On Books