In A Ladder to the Sky, John Boyne and his main character, Maurice Swift, take us inside the world of a writer. And a sociopath. It’s so completely wrong that it’s right. This is the follow up to Boyne’s fabulous 2017 book, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. And because I loved the earlier book so much, I was nervous about being disappointed with Ladder. Thankfully, I loved it even though Maurice is truly despicable.
You’d think that the titular ladder refers to ambition and career success. And Boyne makes clear that it does. Maurice is unreservedly focused on his own success. But I submit that it has a double meaning. You see, in some parts of the world, a ladder refers to damaged pantyhose. What we in the States call a “run.” It’s usually created by snagging something on the hosiery.
So it is with Maurice’s ladder, he’s got a bad snag in his writing process which impedes his path to the top of the literary world. Even though he’s a good writer, he can’t think of a good story. That’s a catastrophe for an ambitious writer. And Maurice is sure he doesn’t deserve to work his way up the usual, incremental way.
Boyne’s book is focused on all the dirty dealings Maurice uses to find his stories. He will lie, cheat, steal, and maybe even harm someone physically. He has no use for scruples, because, of course, they win no prizes. It’s the stories that win literary acclaim.
After reading just two of his books, Boyne is one of my favorite authors. He certainly has no trouble telling a good story. Imagine Boyne sitting around one day saying, “What’s the worst thing a writer could do? Right. Steal other people’s stories! Let’s play around with that and see what happens.” Reading Ladder is enjoying the fruits of that labor.
Using the perspective of the writers in Maurice’s life is genius. Boyne doesn’t switch to Maurice’s voice until well into the novel. Instead he uses Erich, Edith, and real-life writer Gore Vidal to explain Maurice from their perspective. The first two are quite in love with our guy, but Vidal is deeply suspicious. No matter their reaction, Maurice most assuredly uses these people. Anything else isn’t an option for him.
The first section in Erich’s voice is a story within a story within a story. We have Erich telling Maurice a story while also explaining the details of their time together. It’s a matryoshka doll with a surprise ugly piece at the bottom. And Maurice is that ugly one, believe me.
You may ask, why read a book about such a reprehensible man? Because Boyne makes it so delicious to rubberneck this man’s life as he slides and whirls into the final, inevitable impact. Ladder isn’t simply a character study. Boyne weaves in many layers of issues, from sexuality to immigration to war crimes to parenthood. Amazingly, not one bit feels forced into place.
If you can stomach an unlikable main character, please go now and pick this book up from the library or your favorite bookseller. Then bump it to the top of your list so we can discuss. Ready, go!