When Erich Ackermann first meets the young man in a café he is flattered by the admiration of a man so many years younger. As it turns out, Maurice is also a writer like him and Erich believes to discover the aspiring young man he once was in his new acquaintance and he immediately falls for him. Erich takes him on his tour around Europe to promote his book and the more time they spend together, the more the elderly scholar opens up and reveals secrets of his past to his young companion. He will regret this blind trust just as others will, too. Maurice, the charming handsome writer is quick in beguiling and clever at deceiving those who seem closest to him.
John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.
I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.
Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.
Ireland 1945. Catherine is 16, unmarried and pregnant. She is chased away from her village from a priest during mass in front of the whole congregation and determined to start a new life in Dublin. The baby, however, will have to be up for adoption, a loving couple will give him a better start in life than a fallen woman. Thus, baby Cyril arrives at the Averies’. Maud and Charles are not especially cordial, but they care for him and in Julian he finds a friend for his life. Even though the circumstances of his upbringing are much better than expected in the first place, Cyril’s life is not meant to be easy: already as a young teenager he realises that he is much more interested in the boys around him than in the girls – an impossibility in Catholic Ireland. Will he ever be able to find real love? Or didn’t he already find it in his best friend Julian?
John Boyne’s novel is a documentary of the 20th century and the development of morals in Catholic European countries. From the very beginning with strict rules which were much more important than the individual’s suffering, over the 60s and 70s with free love and the detachment from all moral considerations, to the 80s and the uncontrollable and unpredictable virus which threatened the world and made people think over their behaviour until our time where – at least in the novel – new ways of understanding the concepts of family and belonging have formed. The protagonist Cyril is strong enough to lead the reader through the times and to overcome obstacles with his gentle and open-minded manners and attitude towards life. He is simply lovable, still at times, you pity and feel sympathy for him because luck does not really seem to be on his side.
Apart from the plot which I found quite interesting since you get an exemplary insight into what homosexuals had to go through in the 20s century, it is Boyne’s style of writing which makes this novel stand out. Sometimes, you could just laugh out loud, e.g. when Cyril explains how his adoptive parents decided on his name: “They had named me Cyril for a spaniel they’d once owned and loved.” (pos. 875) or when he recollects how his father explains him about the birds and the bees (which is just not suitable for any quotation even though it is hilarious). Boyne has quite a limited set of characters considering the number of pages of the novel, they reappear, meet again and again, at times it seemed as if there were maybe too many coincidences to believe it, but even nevertheless it all fit together well and finished in a round and complete ending.
Admittedly, I was occasionally reminded of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A little life”, in both novels we find a homosexual as protagonist who has to struggle all his life due to his sexual orientation, societal standards and expectations and who is highly sensitive and perceptive for other people’s feelings and emotions. Yet, the novels are quite different. Where I could feel physical pain in Yanagihara’s, I enjoyed the light tone of Boyne’s novel and the fact that he manages to tell a serious and sometimes arduous story in such a light, amusing way.