A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

“Where do [writers] get [their] ideas? And the answer is that no one knows where the come from and nobody should know. They evolve in thin air, they float down from some mysterious heaven, and we reach and grab one, to grasp in our imagination, and to make it our own. One writer might overhear a conversation in a cafe and a whole novel will be built from that moment. Another might see an article in a newspaper and a plot will suggest itself immediately. Another might hear about an unpleasant incident that happened to a friend of a friend in a supermarket…”

– John Boyne, “A Ladder to the Sky”

Review:

This book is infuriating, in the best way, of course.

I think the novel can be easily divided into three sections: Erich, Edith, and Theo. I’ll discuss it that way to avoid spoilers.

In the first section of the novel, narrated by Erich, a former Nazi soldier, we first get a taste for the genius of our protagonist, Maurice, despite his lack of imagination when it comes to his chosen profession in writing. This section of the book will pose some very weighty moral questions. Can someone who has committed unspeakable evil be anything less than evil? Can everyone be redeemed? Is suffering or a lack of connection to humanity, a lonely life, enough to serve as redemption or as punishment for wrongs committed against others? The book won’t ask you these questions directly of course, but they are designed to float just at the edge of your consciousness as you read. In this section I thought that perhaps Boyne was falling on the sadness of the story to sound profound, which is rather an easy trap to fall into and he has done it before.

In the second section of the novel, narrated by Edith, the author will subtly challenge the perceptions we automatically make of characters by eventually describing Edith in ways that most readers will not have assumed her to be. I think this is masterful and wish this idea had actually been explored (something similar to what happens for the reader in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) instead of simply dropped into the story. Perhaps it wasn’t intentional, but I doubt Boyne does anything unintentionally. This is the most infuriating part of the book for me, which of course only pushed me to read more voraciously so as to know the ending.

The third section, narrated by the protagonist Maurice, but principally about his interactions with a young writer named Theo is both the most satisfying and the most frustrating section of the novel. This is where the audiobook truly shines and the reason why I’d actually recommend audio over print for this story.

Each narrator has their own voice. Erich sounds like he comes from an Edwardian novel. Edith feels much more contemporary, almost like a less-lovestruck Danielle Steel. And finally, Maurice narrates in a way that could fit in with the way your father might speak with his work friends – colloquial, but a bit detached. This is the genius of Boyne’s writing. Each character has a voice of their own and it feels as if the story is told by them, not something written in some book by some author.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this author – I hope eventually he’ll publish a fiction piece about a gay man that isn’t stuck in the hopelessness of early 20th century gay literature. This was definitely a step along that path, even if it wasn’t the particular direction I was personally hoping for.

“Perhaps it would be a good idea if everyone just stopped writing for a couple of years and allowed readers to catch up.”

– John Boyne, “A Ladder to the Sky”

Pros:

  • a real page turner!
  • loveable but deeply flawed characters
  • will make you question black and white situations and morality
  • shows the humanity in characters when it would be more comfortable for us not to see it

Cons:

  • unlikable narrator
  • will make you furious (although that might not be a huge con as you’ll feel something strong while reading!)
  • feels like it must be sad in order to be profound

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“And, you’ll forgive me for sounding immodest, but i know that i’m good-looking. Throughout my life, both men and women have made their interest in me obvious. But I can’t control any of that. It was simply the way I was born. Ultimately, it means nothing. I could have a heart of stone for all they know. I could be a psychopath or a sociopath. Not all monsters look like the Elephant Man, and not everyone who looks like the Elephant Man is a monster.”

John Boyne, “A Ladder to the Sky”

Recommended For:

  • those searching for a book to make them think
  • lovers of suspense
  • Book of the Month members looking to spend a free add-on

Books to Read if You Loved A Ladder to the Sky:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • Do you enjoy reading books with duplicitous or unlikable narrators? Why do you think they are popular?
  • Can you still be surprised by a twist you see coming?
  • Is it possible to like people almost against our will?

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