A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

‘You’re right, of course,’ he said finally. ‘I’m not very good at thinking up plots, that’s the problem. I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told.’

‘But that’s just not true,’ I insisted. ‘There’s an infinite supply for anyone with an imagination’.

This month is Reading Ireland Month. I wasn’t sure whether I’d have time to join in, but then I remembered I had A Ladder to the Sky on the TBR pile and, of course, John Boyne is an Irish author. I have read and enjoyed several of his books and this – his most recent, published in 2018 – sounded as though it would be another good one.

John Boyne’s books are always imaginative and always a little bit different to anything else I’ve read and this one is no exception. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring novelist whose ambition knows no bounds and who is prepared to do whatever it takes to climb the ‘ladder to the sky’. The first section of the book, however, is written from the perspective of Erich Ackermann, a successful author who is touring Europe to promote his latest novel. Erich, a gay man in his sixties, has almost given up on the idea of finding love, but when he meets Maurice at a hotel in West Berlin in 1988, he feels an instant attraction to the young man and offers him a job as his assistant. Soon he finds himself confiding in Maurice, telling him all the secrets of his past and his youth growing up in Nazi Germany. But can Maurice be trusted – and what might he do with the information he has been given?

While I was reading this opening section, I was beginning to feel confused. It wasn’t really what I’d expected from the blurb – it seemed as though Erich Ackermann was the protagonist of the novel rather than Maurice and instead of reading a story about an ambitious young author I was reading one about Nazis and the fate of a family of Jews during the war. Eventually, though, I understood the point of all this and saw where the plot was heading. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, sometimes you need to give a book at least one hundred pages before making up your mind (“Yes, perhaps you’ll be bored at the start, but what if it gets better and suddenly everything that went before falls into place”) and that was certainly the case here. The book became more and more enjoyable the more I read, and by the time I reached the end I could appreciate the clever structure and the way in which Maurice’s true nature was revealed.

I won’t go into too many details about the things Maurice does as he tries to climb the ladder of ambition, but I can tell you that he is not a pleasant person at all. He is ruthless, cruel, completely without morals and doesn’t seem to care how much he hurts and betrays people. As an author, he suffers from a problem which will be familiar to many aspiring writers – he knows he can write, but he doesn’t know what to write about. Unable to think of any stories of his own, he decides to steal other people’s. But these are not just simple cases of plagiarism; the methods Maurice uses to obtain these stories and pass them off as his own are much worse than anyone could imagine.

Although the novel is quite dark at times (the section narrated by Maurice’s wife, Edith, is particularly disturbing) there’s also some humour, especially when Boyne is having fun satirising the literary world and various author stereotypes – for example, we meet Henry Etta James who writes an award-winning novel called I Am Dissatisfied with My Boyfriend, My Body and My Career and Garrett Colby whose books all feature talking animals, including one about an ‘unrequited love affair between a man and a raccoon’. At one point Maurice also picks up a book by Maude Avery, the fictitious author from Boyne’s previous novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, which I thought was a nice touch. Real authors find their way into the novel too, such as Gore Vidal, whom Maurice visits at his villa on the Amalfi Coast.

I ended up loving this book; in fact, with the exception of The Thief of Time, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by John Boyne so far. I still have four of his earlier adult novels to read: The Congress of Rough Riders, Next of Kin, Mutiny on the Bounty and The House of Special Purpose. If anyone has read one or more of those, I’d love to know which you’d recommend I read next.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

One day in 1945, Catherine Goggin, sixteen and unmarried, is banished from her small village in West Cork, Ireland, for committing the sin of becoming pregnant. Shamed by the priest in front of an entire congregation and cast out by her family, Catherine makes her way to Dublin in the hope of starting a new life for herself. When her baby boy, Cyril, is born several months later, she makes the decision to put him up for adoption – and from this point, Catherine steps into the background of our story. Our attention switches now to Cyril, growing up in the home of his adoptive parents, Charles and Maude Avery.

Charles is a rich but disreputable businessman with a weakness for gambling and womanising, while Maude is a temperamental, chain-smoking novelist who hates the thought of anyone actually buying one of her books. Unsurprisingly, they do not make good parents and never let Cyril forget that he is “not a real Avery”. The one bright spot in Cyril’s life is his friendship with Julian Woodbead, the son of Charles Avery’s lawyer. Julian is popular, sophisticated and daring; everything Cyril wants to be. As the boys grow older, however, and enter their teenage years, Cyril becomes aware that what he feels for Julian is not just friendship but love.

Narrated by Cyril himself, the story is divided into sections moving forward seven years at a time, taking us from the 1940s right through to 2015 and around the world from Dublin to Amsterdam to New York. Along the way we meet a range of characters who, while they may not be very realistic, are so vividly drawn they almost jump out of the page; I particularly loved the hilarious Mary-Margaret Muffet, Cyril’s first girlfriend, who has “very high standards” and who proudly announces to everyone she meets that she knows all about the world because she works on the “foreign exchange desk at the Bank of Ireland, College Green”. We also witness, through Cyril’s eyes, some of the most significant historical events to occur in his lifetime, including the bombing of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, the 9/11 attacks and Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage.

The main focus of Cyril’s story, however, is on his sexuality and how he comes to terms with it. As a young man growing up in Catholic Ireland, he quickly discovers that it is not at all easy to be homosexual in a society where people don’t even want to acknowledge that such a thing exists; his attempt to confess to a priest has shocking consequences! And so, for a long time, Cyril tries to deny his feelings even to himself (hence Mary-Margaret and one or two other women). Eventually he can suppress his love for Julian no longer…but things don’t go exactly according to plan.

Actually, things never do seem to go according to plan for Cyril and it would be difficult not to feel some sympathy! Sometimes it’s his own fault, as he does make a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, but he is also a victim of prejudice, intolerance and lack of understanding. With the novel jumping forward in seven-year chunks, we see not only how Cyril’s personal circumstances have changed in the intervening time, but also how attitudes towards homosexuality have changed – subtly at first, but quite dramatically by 2015. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that sometimes the messages Boyne was trying to get across came at the expense of the story.

Having read and enjoyed several of John Boyne’s novels over the last few years, I was really looking forward to reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies and although A History of Loneliness is still my favourite, I did find a lot to like about this one – his longest and most ambitious book yet. I should probably warn you that the humour is often very dark and sometimes not in very good taste, which won’t be for everyone, and that as Cyril’s sexuality forms such an important part of the story, it’s also quite explicit at times. I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be my sort of book or not at first, but after an uncertain start I found myself being drawn into Cyril’s story and then there was no question of not finishing it!

Following Cyril Avery’s life from birth to old age was a memorable experience! He’s a wonderful character…so complex and so human. Although the plot is built around a series of highly unlikely coincidences, I didn’t mind too much as it meant everything fell into place at the end. Not all of the characters get a happy ending, but some of them do and I was left with the hope that the younger generations of Cyril’s family would find certain aspects of their lives easier to deal with than poor Cyril did!

The Absolutist by John Boyne

the-absolutist It’s 1919 and twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler is home from the war. He knows he is lucky to have survived when so many like him didn’t – people like his friend and fellow soldier, Will Bancroft. John Boyne’s The Absolutist follows the stories of Tristan and Will, two very different men with very different attitudes towards life, death, love and war.

As the novel opens, Tristan is taking a train from London to Norwich where he plans to visit Will’s sister, Marian, and return the letters she sent to Will during the war. This is not the only reason for his visit, however – he has been carrying a terrible secret and is hoping to unburden himself to Marian so that they can both move on and face the future.

Through a series of long flashbacks, we witness Tristan’s first meeting with Will during their training at Aldershot in 1916 and then watch their relationship develop as they are sent to France and endure the horrors of life in the trenches. This story unfolds alongside the ‘present day’ storyline set in 1919, with Tristan’s big secret kept concealed until near the end of the book, allowing suspense and tension to build throughout the novel. There’s already plenty of tension anyway, of course, because this is a novel which doesn’t shy away from describing the horror and the uncertainty of war and although we know from the start that Tristan survives and Will doesn’t, we don’t know exactly how Will’s life ended or what the fate of the other characters in the story might be.

I’ve read several of John Boyne’s other novels (and particularly loved This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) so I started this one with high hopes. I thought it was a fascinating and moving read which I enjoyed almost – but not quite – as much as the three I’ve just mentioned. The period leading up to, during and just after the First World War is one that I always like to read about and this novel covers many different aspects of the war and its aftermath. What I found particularly interesting was the exploration of what it meant to be a ‘conscientious objector’ or an ‘absolutist’ during the war, how they were treated by the other soldiers and how they were viewed by the public. The difference between the two is that conscientious objectors, despite refusing to fight, would often agree to fill other roles, such as stretcher bearers, but absolutists were unwilling to have any involvement at all.

The one thing that spoils The Absolutist, in my opinion, is some of the language Boyne uses, especially in the dialogue, which doesn’t feel appropriate to the time period. Other reviews of this book have mentioned inaccuracies regarding the military terminology too, although I would never notice things like that myself. It’s a shame, considering the care and attention to detail Boyne has obviously put into his recreations of life in the trenches and his treatment of other important issues of the period such as women’s suffrage and attitudes towards homosexuality. Still, I had no major problems with this novel and found it a powerful and thought-provoking read. I still have plenty of John Boyne’s earlier books left to explore and am looking forward to his new one, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, coming in 2017.

My Commonplace Book: November 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

~

tensyoin

“Barbarians,” she murmured in tones of disbelief. “Barbarians.” Perhaps if she said the word often enough she could defuse the threat. “But in that case…we’re finished. We’re all dead.” It was just as Lord Nariakira had warned. These were not gentle Hollanders. These were other beings, those nameless hordes who’d rampaged across China. Barbarians like those didn’t come in peace. They threatened their lives, their world, everything they knew.

Things were spinning around her. The world was turning upside down. But she couldn’t help feeling curious as well. She wished she could catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures with her own eyes.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (2016)

~

“And then do ye wait and see more; there’ll be plenty of opportunity. Time enough to cry when you know ’tis a crying matter; and ’tis bad to meet troubles half-way.”

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)

~

My family were not readers, but Xavier Mountstuart’s writings had inspired and transported me. I had devoured The Courage of the Bruce and The Black Prince, then graduated to the Indian writings: The Lion of the Punjab, of course, and the tales of bandits and rebels in the foothills of Nepal. I had read of white forts and marble palaces and maharajas’ emeralds; of zenanas and nautch girls in the Deccan; of the sieges and jangals. I had even read a short tract about Hindooism, vegetarianism and republicanism, which had left me a little confused. Mountstuart seemed to me the very acme of Byronic manhood. It was not simply that he was a poet and writer of genius, but that he had lived his writings.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter (2014)

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highwayman

“Now, what mean you by that?”

“Just that I am a common highwayman, Miss Betty.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then resumed her work.

“You look it.”

John cast a startled glance down his slim person.

“Is that so, madam? And I rather flattered myself I did not!”

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1921)

~

“No, I don’t care for novels,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never really understood them, if I’m honest.”

“In what way?” I asked, confused by how the concept of the novel could be a difficult one to understand. There were some writers, of course, who told their stories in the most convoluted way possible — many of whom seemed to send their unsolicited manuscripts to the Whisby Press, for instance — but there were others, such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.

The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011)

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britannia

Frances struck an attitude, sitting upright with head poised high and left hand outstretched as though she grasped an invisible weapon. “Of course, when I am really posing for Roettier, the engraver, I shall wear a helmet and hold a trident and I shall have flowing, Grecian robes. It was altogether the King’s idea, but James of York thought it should be called Britannia. To represent the nation’s might.”

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1963)

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“My thoughts are my own,” I answered: “and though you keep my person prisoner, these are beyond your control.”

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (1824)

~

“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said the Viscount.

“I’m glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting — at this moment — to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.”

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)

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aemilia-lanyer-poetry

She has a soft spot for little Peter; he had asked why he needed to learn to read when he first arrived.

“Because without reading you only have half a life,” she’d said, watching his puzzled face. “Reading will open doors for you to new worlds.” He had looked at her in wonder then.

“Like the men who sail to the Americas?”

“Yes, something like that.”

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: The Woodlanders and The Strangler Vine

The Thief of Time by John Boyne

The Thief of Time If you met Matthieu Zela for the first time you would probably think he was just a normal fifty-year-old man. You would be wrong. Matthieu Zela has been alive for more than two hundred and fifty years.

Born in Paris in 1743, he noticed at some point in the 1790s that he had simply stopped growing older and he has looked like a middle-aged man ever since. It’s now 1999 and his neverending existence still shows no sign of coming to an end. As he prepares to enter yet another new century, Matthieu looks back on his life so far (nineteen wives, a variety of different careers, and a series of nephews – nine generations of them – all called Thomas and all dying tragically young) and he discovers that maybe there is something he can do to break the cycle after all.

In The Thief of Time, two stories are told in parallel. One is set in the eighteenth century and follows the teenage Matthieu as he leaves home after losing both of his parents and sets off with his half-brother Tomas in search of a better life. As they board a ship to England, they meet Dominique Sauvet, the girl who will become Matthieu’s first love. The second main thread of the novel takes place in the present day (1999). Matthieu’s current nephew, Tommy – a descendant of Tomas – is an actor in a popular soap opera and is finding it difficult to cope with the pressures of fame. Worried about Tommy’s drug addiction, Matthieu (now a successful television executive) decides that even though he did nothing to help the previous generations of doomed Thomases, he won’t allow this one to die an early death.

Interspersed with these two storylines are a series of chapters looking at significant episodes in Matthieu’s life. During his two hundred and fifty-six years, he has witnessed some of the defining moments of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries including the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash and the 1896 Olympics, and meets Charlie Chaplin, Pope Pius IX and President Herbert Hoover, to name just a few. I didn’t find it particularly believable that Matthieu could have been so closely involved with all of these famous people and events but as the whole book is based around the idea of a man who never ages I’m not going to worry too much about that!

The Thief of Time was John Boyne’s debut novel and, having read some of his later ones (This House is Haunted, Crippen and A History of Loneliness) this one really does feel like a first book. It’s such an interesting concept but there were too many flaws to make it a satisfying read. I think my biggest problem with the book was the structure; jumping from a chapter set in 1999 to one set in the 1700s and then another set during a random time period just didn’t work. The novel didn’t flow properly, there was no real character development and the historical chapters – which often felt irrelevant and did nothing to move the story forward – lacked a sense of time and place (there were also some historical inaccuracies, such as a mention of telegrams being sent during the French Revolution).

I was also disappointed that the reasons for Matthieu’s immortality are never explored – he never really questions how and why this is happening to him and the people around him don’t ever seem to notice anything unusual! I don’t think we are given a real explanation as to how he progressed from his first job as stable boy to a successful career in media either. There were some aspects of the book I liked, though: I enjoyed the Charlie Chaplin chapter and also the chapter set during the Great Exhibition of 1851, and while I didn’t particularly like Matthieu himself, I was interested in his television work and in his relationship with his latest nephew, Tommy.

If this had been my first John Boyne book I don’t think I would have wanted to read more, but as I loved the other three of his that I’ve read I will continue to work through the rest of his novels. I’m hoping for better luck with the next one I choose!

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness The first John Boyne book I read was This House is Haunted, a Victorian-style ghost story. The second was Crippen, a fictional account of the life of the murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. His latest novel, A History of Loneliness, deals with a subject no less dark and disturbing: the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

If you have heard about this scandal on the news or read about it in the newspapers, you have probably asked yourself the following questions. How did these paedophiles get away without being caught for so long? Their friends and colleagues must have known what was going on, so why didn’t they say anything? And why did the victims not come forward earlier? John Boyne attempts to answer these questions and more through the story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest from Dublin who is ordained in the 1970s and lives through some of the darkest days in the church’s recent history.

Having lost his father and little brother under tragic circumstances during a family beach holiday, the young Odran doesn’t argue when his mother tells him he has a vocation for the priesthood and must dedicate his life to God. After seven years of training, Odran begins working at Terenure College where he finds that teaching English and tidying books in the school library suits him better than carrying out the duties of a traditional parish priest. Hiding away in his library for thirty years, Odran is able to ignore what is happening elsewhere in the church…but is he really as oblivious as he claims to be?

A History of Loneliness is a very insightful and thought-provoking novel and my favourite John Boyne book so far. This is obviously never going to be an easy or comfortable subject to write a book about, but he handles it with sensitivity and understanding. By telling the story from Odran’s perspective this means the focus is not just on the issue of child abuse itself, but also on the dangers of burying our heads in the sand and choosing not to confront things that we find difficult or unpleasant.

There are several different ways in which Odran’s character could be interpreted. I saw him as a weak, naïve but basically well-meaning person who made some terrible mistakes and serious errors of judgment. It’s difficult for anyone to know how they would react under similar circumstances, but I’m sure we would all like to think that we would do what is right and not just take the easy way out. Odran doesn’t always do the right thing and he does sometimes take the easy option, but does that make him as guilty as the people who have actually committed the crimes? It’s left to the reader to decide how much blame should be attributed to Odran and those like him and whether there can ever be any excuse for turning a blind eye and doing nothing.

The novel has an interesting structure as the chapters don’t follow each other chronologically (a chapter set in 2006 is followed by one set in 1964 and then 1980). This was confusing at times but very effective because it meant we were filling in one piece of the story at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. John Boyne is a wonderful storyteller and as well as exploring the serious, sensitive issues I’ve already described, he also creates an absorbing personal story for Odran and his family which unfolds slowly as we jump back and forth in time.

With the story spanning more than five decades, we are shown how public perception of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Odran is treated with respect and admiration everywhere he goes; people trust him and look to him for help and advice, never questioning his integrity. By the time we reach the present day, attitudes are completely different. A man spits in Odran’s face just because the clothes he is wearing identify him as a priest, while an attempt to help a lost child in a department store ends in disaster. It’s sad because, of course, not everyone within the church was involved in these sexual scandals and yet they have all suffered through the actions (or non-actions) of others.

A History of Loneliness could easily have been a very depressing book, but thankfully Boyne does add some humour to the story – even if he does seem to rely on Irish stereotypes and clichés at times (if you’ve ever watched the comedy Father Ted you’ll know the sort of humour I mean). If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book and am so glad I still have so many of John Boyne’s earlier novels left to explore!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Crippen by John Boyne

Crippen I read my first John Boyne book, the Gothic ghost story This House is Haunted, last year just in time for Halloween. Since then I’ve been wanting to read another of his books and this novel, based on a real-life crime which took place in London more than a century ago, is the one I chose. It turned out to be a good choice because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed This House is Haunted, although the two books are quite different.

Crippen is a fictional account of the life of the notorious murderer, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and hiding the remains in the cellar of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It sounds very morbid and gruesome, I know, but the book is actually not as dark as you might imagine thanks to Boyne’s sense of humour, colourful characters and storytelling flair.

The story begins in the summer of 1910 and introduces us to a group of passengers on board the SS Montrose, sailing from Belgium to Canada. There’s Mrs Drake, a demanding, overbearing woman, and her daughter, Victoria, who is hoping to find romance on the journey. Then there’s Martha Hayes, who would prefer to hide herself away in her cabin with a pile of novels than mix with the other passengers, and Matthieu Zela, a Frenchman travelling with his obnoxious nephew, Tom. And finally, we meet Mr Robinson and his teenage son, Edmund, who are hoping for a quiet and uneventful journey.

If you’re not already familiar with the Crippen murder case, you might be wondering what the relevance is of the Atlantic voyage I’ve just described. I can promise you it is very relevant, although we don’t find out why until later in the book. Before we reach that point, we go back in time to the 1860s where we follow the young Hawley Harvey Crippen through his childhood in Michigan. As a teenager he decides he wants to study medicine, but when his parents refuse to help him financially it seems unlikely that Hawley will ever become a fully qualified doctor. After marrying Cora Turner, a music hall singer, the Crippens move to London where Hawley becomes an assistant in a homeopathic medicines company. Several years later, Cora disappears, her friends become convinced she has been murdered, and Hawley finds himself under suspicion…

Before beginning this book, I had heard of Dr Crippen but didn’t know any of the details of the case. I didn’t even know that there was so much controversy surrounding it. Boyne presents an interesting theory as to what may have actually happened, though I have no idea whether there could be any truth to this theory or not – I suspect there probably isn’t, but the book certainly does show Crippen in a much more sympathetic light than you might expect. It would be hard not to feel sorry for Boyne’s portrayal of a boy forced to abandon his dreams, a quiet and mild-mannered man bullied and abused by his selfish, manipulative wife.

My only complaint is that it was difficult to know exactly which parts of the novel were fictional and which weren’t. I looked up some factual information about Hawley Harvey Crippen after I read the book and was surprised to find that Boyne had changed so many biographical details, such as the names of Crippen’s parents and the fact that his first wife had actually died of a stroke rather than a road accident as described in the novel. When writing a fictional account of a real person’s life, it’s obvious that things like conversations, thoughts and emotions will have to be invented, but I’m not sure what the point was in altering all those little details.

Anyway, I didn’t worry about any of this until after I’d finished the book. While I was reading I was completely captivated by the twists and turns of the story and by Boyne’s wonderful writing style. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of his novels now!