Book Review: A Ladder to the Sky

A Ladder to the Sky, by John Boyne, tells the story of Maurice Swift, a handsome Yorkshireman and son of a farmer who is determined to leave his upbringing behind and become a renowned author. When the tale opens he is working as a waiter in West Berlin. Here he meets Erich Ackermann, an aging Cambridge professor whose latest novel has just won The Prize. To satisfy his publishers Erich has taken a year’s leave of absence to perform on the expected circuit of literary events across Europe and America, promoting the book that has unexpectedly brought him fame. He is drawn to Maurice as a moth to a flame, the young man’s good looks and knowledgeable admiration of Erich’s work unlocking desires that have lain dormant for decades.

Erich agrees to read some of Maurice’s writing and is disappointed to find it skillfully constructed but mundane. Unwilling to lose touch he offers to employ Maurice as his assistant on tour. With this foothold the aspiring writer enters the rarefied world of the literati with its jealousies, conceits and ruthless ambition. Always on the lookout for a story idea, Maurice encourages Erich to talk to him about his experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler. Erich harbours a terrible secret that he decides to share.

The plot jumps forward in time to a beautiful and secluded villa on the Amalfi Coast where Gore lives with Howard. Key figures from the world of literature, the arts and politics along with those who believe they will benefit from mixing with these supposed titans have all passed through. Now Maurice has found a way to receive an invitation to stay. Like other aging authors, Gore is tempted by the young man’s mix of admiration and contempt, his confidence and allure. There is much verbal sparring, name dropping and one-upmanship highlighting the tensions, pretensions and sensitivities of authors who, even when revered, are forever alert to the danger of eclipse by newer rivals’ work. Maurice may have by now written a book that garnered wide attention but the cost was high and lacking the esteem he seeks.

A decade later Maurice is married to Edith, an up and coming writer, but has not yet found the continued success he believes is his due. The couple have recently moved to Norwich where Edith is to teach creative writing at UEA while adding the finishing touches to her second novel. Maurice has no firm plans but hopes to pick up ideas, perhaps from her students. What he discovers will catapult him into the world to which he aspires. He will not allow anyone to stand in his way.

The story continues in New York where Maurice founds and runs an exclusive literary magazine, seeking out new writers and granting him access to their ideas. By the end of the novel he is living in London and being courted by a young writer himself, a situation he intends to work to his advantage.

The decades over which the story is set allows for tight plot progression, the pace of which effortlessly maintains reader engagement. Despite Maurice’s behaviour, the terrible actions he justifies to himself as necessary, there is much humour. Authors are often asked where they get there ideas. This tale provides an interesting study into who owns intangible and regularly reinterpreted inspirations. The denouement is ace.

I would offer a comparison to an amalgamation of Patricia Highsmith and Sebastian Faulks but wonder if this would somehow irritate the author who may prefer simply to be recognised as the talented writer he undoubtedly is. Having read this book readers will likely view the authors they queue to meet at festivals and events in a different light. Expertly constructed it provides engrossing literary entertainment, and a deliciously subversive dig at the author’s world.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

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First day blues

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme the First Day of School.

You can steal me and use me as your own

I had never intended to be there. This had not been a part of my grand, life plan, dreamed about for so many years. Nevertheless, there I was, standing around waiting to meet up with a few old friends from school who had also ended up at this place. We were getting together to attend the Fresher’s Bazaar on our first day at university.

In 1983 The Queens University of Belfast was not the university of choice for most British students. It had a highly regarded medical school where students got to see first hand how to treat bomb damaged bodies and the victims of shootings. Being so close to the centre of a troubled city was not, however, regarded as ideal for those unfamiliar with the province. However good the teaching may have been, location mattered.

It was not The Troubles that I was trying to escape from but rather the mindset of the people who perpetuated what I regarded as a pointless conflict. Some of the teenagers I had grown up with were starting to talk like their parents, to harbour the same prejudices. I wanted out.

I had applied to study at The University of Western Australia and received a generous scholarship offer dependant on acceptable grades in my final school exams. I also had an offer from The University of Warwick, and my safety net offer from Queens. All the locals knew that Queens could provide a safety net because there just wasn’t the same competition for places at that time.

Some chose this place because they were happy to stay close to their families. I was not one of them.

The day my ‘A’ level results came out my hopes and dreams were shattered and I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had studied subjects that were beyond my ability and had not put in the effort that would have been required to sufficiently raise my grades.

I would not be flying away to sunny Perth to start my life anew, or even travelling across the water to the mainland. Instead I would be catching the Number 38 bus from outside my parent’s house and travelling three miles down the road, past both my primary and my secondary schools, to attend my local university, Queens. I recognised that I was fortunate that they had agreed to take me despite my poor results. I knew some had not been even this lucky.

September was filled with pub crawls to say goodbye to the friends who had got away. At the end of the month those of us who were left arranged to meet up at the Fresher’s Bazaar. We were a motley crew, brought together by chance and circumstance. It was not the exciting new start that I had anticipated.

The Fresher’s Bazaar was full of stalls manned by the various clubs and societies run by the university. I stopped off at the University Air Squadron stand where one of the volunteers tried to chat me up. The banner overhead invited students to learn to fly; I rather liked the idea of that. However, it soon became clear that there was a problem; I was female. Oh, they most definitely wanted me to join, but they could not offer to training me as a pilot. The heated discussion on discrimination that I was eager to pursue was cut short when my friends pulled me away. Somehow this episode seemed to sum up my day.

We organised our student cards and membership of the sports club before retiring to one of the many bars in the Students Union, a place where I spent a lot of my time in that first year. I attended the parties and balls, sold the Rag magazine, dressed up for parades, but never felt that I fitted in. Most of the friends I had were from my school days, friends and friends of friends. I lost touch with the few new acquaintances that I got to know when I left the place five years later.

On that first day at university I knew that I had put on hold the life that I wanted in order to gain the qualification that I needed to eventually fulfil my dreams. Queens is a fine university and the quality of the teaching could not be faulted, it was simply not where I wanted to be.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see that everything happens for a reason, that the life I now lead and love would not have come about had I achieved my ambitions way back then. At the time though, that first day had the taste of failure. I determined that I would do all that I could to ensure I never experienced that taste again.

Queens-University-Belfast-0064

To read the other posts in this Blog Hop, click on the link below.