It’s not enough for a writer to have a way with words, dedication, and “a room of one’s own.” They also have to have ideas to put on the page. Ideas can be hard to come by and authors are often pestered for the source of those ideas. I daresay that authors don’t go to the lengths that Maurice Swift does in John Boyne’s brilliant novel, A Ladder to the Sky. Swift has two ambitions in life. First, he wants to be a writer. Second, he wants to be a father. When we first meet him, Maurice is like any other aspiring writing. He finds an established one to be a mentor. He takes notes when the great man speaks. What we don’t know until later is how far Maurice will go to get his two dreams and how many people he will step over on his way up the ladder.
The first person Maurice steps over is Erich Ackermann. They meet by chance in a Berlin bar in 1988. Maurice has no compunctions about using Erich’s attraction to his person to extract a story that Erich has been keeping secret since 1939. Ackermann has acknowledged his past as a member of the Hitlerjugend and the Wehrmacht—although he is very clear that he was just a clerk. The story that Maurice extracts from him has terrible consequences for Erich. And yet, the literary world is mostly willing to overlook how Maurice took advantage of the old, lovesick man. After all, it was a very good story.
A Ladder in the Sky jumps forward to different points in Maurice’s life. From 1988, we jump to 1998, then to the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Sometimes, others narrate their encounters with Maurice. The most affecting is the section told from Edith’s perspective. Edith, who tells her story to her husband, Maurice. After the smashing success of Maurice’s first novel, he is “blocked.” He has no ideas. He’s allegedly been working while Edith has also been working on the follow up to her novel. In the midst of a lot of nasty family drama, Edith is surprised to find that, suddenly, the writer’s block is gone and Maurice has just turned in a novel. More, he asks Edith to delay her own novel’s publication until his comes out. Clever readers will figure out why before Edith realized the truth of what Maurice is.
Boyne has spun a stunning tale that highlights that the waspish, cutthroat world of literature. The authors snipe at each other, but say nice things for the media or for those with whom they wish to curry favor. Much can be forgiven of people who create art, right? A Ladder to the Sky asks this question more than once. As I read it, I found that my answer changed. I was upset about Erich Ackermann, but I could understand. Later, when Maurice did things I considered unforgivable, I had to uncomfortably reflect on my own sense of ethics. Am I really willing to bend my ethics for the sake of a good story?
This delicious dilemma sits on top of a terrific thriller with excellent writing. Boyne’s novel of a sociopathic, ambitious man with a way with words was brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, and filled with amazing, fully realized characters. A Ladder to the Sky is a marvel of a book. And, if I hadn’t already loved the book so much, the very ending is the perfect cherry on top of this fantastically good story.