Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne

Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you?”
He shook his head.
“That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy.”

I have to say, I’d never have picked up this book had it not been so highly recommended by both Petrik and his girlfriend, Katherine. Not because the subject matter wasn’t of interested, but because I had honestly never heard of it. I’m not sure how, but A Ladder to the Sky completely missed my radar when it was released in 2018. I had heard of two other of the author’s work, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Heart’s Invisible Furies, and while they sound great, the premise of this particular book is far more intriguing to me personally. As someone who loves every single aspect of books, from how they’re made to who wrote them to those who sell them and the stories they actually hold, any novel that involves bookselling or authorship or any other profession or hobby linked to books is always going to draw me in. Not every such book delivers, in my opinion, but this one sure does. A Ladder to the Sky was compulsively readable from page one, even though it took me a bit longer to actually gel with the story it was telling.

“Would there be no end to publishing? he wondered. Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up.”

This is a story in three parts, but each part is predominantly focused on Maurice Swift. We meet him as a young man and follow him throughout his life. Maurice is a man with two dreams: he wants to be a celebrated author and a father. And he won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of those dreams, including his inability to think of any stories to actually tell. Ambition is quite literally all that drives him, and he doesn’t care how many people he uses and ruins on his way to achieving his goals.

“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.”

I’m pretty sure Maurice Swift is the most despicable literary character I’ve ever experienced. Even Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita who is obsessed with the titular girl though she is far from grown, seemed to have more a conscience than Maurice. Maurice seemed incapable of viewing other people as, well, people. They were merely dolls to be played with until he tired of them and threw them away for something new, or a source from whom he could leech ideas like the creative vampire he was at his core. And the thing is, even when he was confronted with his sins, he firmly believed he had done nothing wrong. I find that utter lack of basic human decency both baffling and disturbingly believable, and Boyne did a phenomenal job crafting a character who is both despicable and memorable.

“Writers are all fascists. We like to control the discourse and crush anyone who dares to disagree with us.”

There were times that I felt sure I knew where the book was going, and in at least two such instances I was utterly and completely wrong. The concept of idea theft is nothing new, but Boyne managed to set his iteration apart through some pretty wild plot twists. Even when I felt sure of my predictions, I would be blindsided by some new facet to the story. Also, I loved the things Boyne had to say about books and their readers. He really captured some of our most common disagreements as readers and managed to show both sides of said arguments without committing to either.

“Life’s too short. As far as I’m concerned, a writer gets one hundred pages and, if they can’t keep my attention during that time, I move on.”


“You can’t say you’ve read a novel unless you’ve read it cover to cover. Yes, perhaps you’ll be bored at the start but what if it gets better and suddenly everything that went before falls into place?”

My only issue with A Ladder to the Sky was it rampant and unabashed sexuality, especially in the first third of the book. There were multiple characters who seemed utterly consumed by their own sexuality and their lust for Swift, to the point where their sexuality seemed to completely dominate every other personality trait. I enjoy sex as much as the next person, but I think it’s really unhealthy to completely define yourself by your sexuality, and to let that one portion of yourself overwhelm any other definitely characteristic within you.

“When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”

While it took the story a bit to begin growing on me, A Ladder to the Sky is one of the most compulsively readable works of literary fiction I’ve read in quite some time. I was gripped from the first page, even though I was unable to root for anyone. There are no heroes in this story. But it’s a tale very well told, and undoubtedly worth reading.

You can purchase a copy of the book here, with free shipping worldwide!

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