A Ladder to the Sky

by John Boyne

Saturday, May 13, 2023

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I went to the library to work for a couple of hours while I was stuck waiting in town and found it under refurbishment and with no tables to sit and work at. But there were chairs so I decided the universe was telling me to select some library books and sit and read for a couple of hours instead. I picked this up off a shelf at random and there was a recommendation from Patrick Gale on the back. I never know how much stock to put in those quotes on books but I started reading anyway, and by the time I checked the book out of the library I had already read a good chunk of it.

Erich Ackermann is at the end of a long and moderately successful writing career when he visits West Berlin on a book tour, this is in the late 1980s, the time just before the wall falls. He’s mesmerised by a young English waiter and wannabe writer, Maurice Swift, and takes him on as an assistant. Maurice accompanies Erich on the rest of his book tour and Erich gradually reveals a story of his life in Nazi Berlin fifty years before when he was a teenager himself and the second world war was about to start. Maurice takes Erich’s story and turns it into fiction himself, which has awful consequences for his mentor. That’s just the very start of Maurice’s writing life, it’s not very nice, but it’s all pretty much above board and as a reader you’re stuck between the horror of what Erich actually did as a young Nazi and the unfairness of what Maurice does to an old man, and no one has the moral high ground.

The book switches viewpoints for most sections - I was expecting that to make me put the book down but actually I got drawn in further each time as I wanted to see who the narrator was this time, and how Maurice would twist situations and get away with it. It’s a grand tale of literary fraud, and the book felt thriller-like at times as I kept turning the pages to see how awful it would get. There are some real characters in among the fictional ones, notable for being some of the few characters who get the upperhand with Maurice. On the whole it was a cracking read, well written and entertaining, I’m pleased I got stuck at the library and picked it up!