If you look hard enough, you can find stories pretty much anywhere. They don’t even have to be your own. Or so would-be writer Maurice Swift decides very early on in his career. A chance encounter in a Berlin hotel with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann gives him an opportunity to ingratiate himself with someone more powerful than him. For Erich is lonely, and he has a story to tell. Whether or not he should do so is another matter entirely. Once Maurice has made his name, he sets off in pursuit of other people’s stories. He doesn’t care where he finds them – or to whom they belong – as long as they help him rise to the top. Stories will make him famous but they will also make him beg, borrow and steal. They may even make him do worse.
“The more you read, the more you write, the more the ideas will appear. They’ll fall like confetti around your head and your only difficulty will be deciding which ones to catch and which to let fall to the floor.”
“To what lengths would someone go to get what they wanted?” is the question that the readers will constantly obsess over while reading, and even after finishing, John Boyne’s story. A Ladder to the Sky focuses on the life of Maurice Swift who decided very early in life that he wanted to become a writer and be remembered for it as well. The means in which he would accomplish his dreams didn’t matter at all to him, nor did the people he would hurt in the process and that’s what makes this story so unique. Maurice is a true villain without any remorse. Through the book you’re not going to feel sorry for him nor root for him, yet you will want to keep on reading to see if there are any limits to his wickedness or if he’s ever going to be punished for all of his misdeeds.
A Ladder to the Sky is essentially the story of a ruthless person, yet it’s so much more than that. It’s also the story of Erich, an older writer who serves as a mentor to Maurice and who’s hiding a story of his own that’s been torturing him for decades. It’s the story of Edith, a promising young novelist whose destiny is forever changed after marrying Maurice. But in the end, it all comes back to the protagonist, the one who’s slowly climbing up the ladder of fame, securing his place amongst renowned writers. His fear of being forgettable, of remaining an obscure figure in literature is the root of his motivation and propels all of his ulterior actions.
Boyne weaves Maurice’s story through the perspectives of those who knew him, those who were wronged by him and then ultimately lets him tell his perspective of it all. The book starts with the perspective of Erich, who meets Maurice in West Berlin – at the time, there is a huge difference in status between the two as Erich is an award-winning writer and Maurice only has a few stories that he would like to publish as soon as possible which makes him immediately jump at the prospect of being taken under Erich’s wing. After that, we progressively see Maurice build a career by manipulating fellow writers without even flinching—it’s fascinating and distressing at the same time how easy it is for him to perceive others’ weaknesses and use them to get what he wants. The part where Maurice is the narrator is probably the most haunting of them all because the reader really starts to understand the extent of Maurice’s actions. The way he approaches plagiarism is shocking, the way he keeps twisting everyone’s words and tries to rationalise his actions is sickening. He convinces himself that ethics don’t apply to him, that he’s above it all just because he’s a writer with great skills—one whose misfortune is not being able to come up with ideas of his own.
Besides painting such a realistic portrait of an unflinching opportunist, the author gives an inside look at the dark sides of publishing and also reflects on some interesting questions on writing and originality. For example, do authors really own their ideas considering they always get inspired by external sources? Maurice kind of uses this logic while reasoning with other people about his actions because in his opinion, the line between this and outright plagiarism isn’t all that clear. For him, actually there is no difference between the two because no one besides the author really knows where the ideas come from.
I believe you will absolutely adore A Ladder to the Sky if you don’t mind getting a close look into a sociopath’s mind. It’s perfect for book lovers as it has so many references from literature and it shows a fictionalised writing community that is nothing like we readers tend to imagine because let’s be honest, we kind of idealise it all the time. It’s complex and always presenting all the multitudes to a situation and it’s raw and unfiltered. It doesn’t shy away from showing the bad nature of humanity and it constantly makes you wonder whether the evil might conquer good after all.
Have you read A Ladder to the Sky? What did you think about it?
Have you read other books with amoral characters? Tell me your favourites!