Ir­re­sistibly read­able and darkly funny

John Boyne’s new novel, set in the lit­er­ary world, fea­tures a psy­chopath so in­trigu­ing he’ll keep you fas­ci­nated and ap­palled to the very end, writes JOHN BOLAND

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

This is a hugely en­joy­able novel about am­bi­tion, fraud, mur­der and the writ­ing game from an au­thor who, ever since global suc­cess of The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas in 2006, has been fizzing with ideas, is a dab hand at telling a story and cre­ates vividly ar­rest­ing char­ac­ters, too.

He’s been let down in his re­cent adult fic­tion by a weak­ness for set-ups that haven’t al­ways been plau­si­ble — his cen­tral priest in A His­tory of Lone­li­ness (2014) was gorm­less to a fault, while some of the anachro­nisms in The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) stretched the reader’s credulity.

But that doesn’t hap­pen in his new novel, which is both a bravura piece of sto­ry­telling and to­tally per­sua­sive from be­gin­ning to end — no mean feat in a book that spans three decades, has var­i­ous first-per­son nar­ra­tors and quite a lot of tales to tell, all of them re­lat­ing to the sin­is­ter cen­tral char­ac­ter of Mau­rice Swift.

Yet at first he’s not the cen­tral char­ac­ter at all. In­stead we’re in the con­fid­ing com­pany of 66-year-old Ber­lin-born, British-based writer Erich Ack­er­mann, whose six short nov­els “and an ill-ad­vised col­lec­tion of po­etry” had never been suc­cess­ful un­til the last of the nov­els “won an im­por­tant lit­er­ary award” the pre­vi­ous au­tumn.

So now, in 1988, he’s back in Ber­lin for a pub­lic read­ing, and in his ho­tel din­ing room he spies a young waiter “so very beau­ti­ful” that he im­me­di­ately be­comes in­fat­u­ated with him. The waiter, young Mau­rice from the north of Eng­land, de­clares him­self a “great ad­mirer” of Erich’s work and agrees to ac­com­pany the older writer to lit­er­ary en­gage­ments in Copen­hagen, Rome, Madrid, Paris and New York.

Along the way, he gets Erich to re­veal more and more about his past life, cru­cially a dis­clo­sure of sex­ual jeal­ousy that had led the teenage Erich to be­tray a half-Jewish boy he fan­cied to the Nazis, thereby caus­ing both the boy’s mur­der and that of his girl­friend and her fam­ily.

Mau­rice ap­pears to make lit­tle of this story he’s been hear­ing but sub­se­quently uses the ma­te­rial to write a best­selling novel, re­veal­ing in in­ter­views that the book’s main char­ac­ter is a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of Erich and that the story is es­sen­tially true — thus lead­ing to Erich be­ing os­tracised and to his work be­ing re­moved from book­shelves around the world.

This open­ing sec­tion of A Lad­der to the Sky is a novel in it­self, and an en­gross­ingly lively one, too, but we’re less than a 100 pages into a 350-page book, and there are other char­ac­ters to meet, not least in the 40-page “in­ter­lude” that fol­lows.

This takes place two years later on the Amalfi coast, in the villa owned by Gore Vi­dal, whom the now feted Mau­rice and his lovelorn mid­dle-aged com­pan­ion, sec­ond-rate nov­el­ist Dash Hardy, have come to visit — a dis­dain­ful Vi­dal, who has quickly got the true mea­sure of Mau­rice, re­mark­ing that “there are peo­ple who will sac­ri­fice any­one and any­thing to get ahead”.

And so it proves in the book’s next sec­tion, nar­rated 10 years later by Edith, an ad­mired thirty-some­thing nov­el­ist giv­ing a cre­ative writ­ing course in Nor­wich and mar­ried to Mau­rice, whose sub­se­quent lit­er­ary ca­reer hasn’t gone well. In­deed, when Edith con­sid­ers the nov­els that fol­lowed his best­selling de­but, she deems them “ut­terly de­void of au­then­tic­ity”, though she keeps those thoughts to her­self.

Edith is also work­ing on a new novel, so how will Mau­rice con­trive to re­gain his for­mer sta­tus and fame? I don’t want to give too much away be­cause among the book’s plea­sures are plot twists that you don’t see com­ing, so suf­fice to say that a rick­ety stair­case has a role in this story and that a decade later Mau­rice is to be found in Man­hat­tan as ed­i­tor of a cut­ting-edge mag­a­zine devoted to new fic­tion — all the while steal­ing ideas and ma­te­rial from the sto­ries he re­jects.

Now aged 45, he has also ac­quired, cour­tesy of an oblig­ing Ital­ian cham­ber­maid, the son he had al­ways wanted, though the reader now knows enough about Mau­rice and his am­bi­tions to fear for this boy — and, in­deed, for any­one Mau­rice per­ceives to be get­ting in his way.

So will he ever get his come­up­pance? I’ll say no more ex­cept that the fi­nal sec­tion, which is set in the Lon­don of 2015 and finds the age­ing Mau­rice with a new set of ob­sta­cles to be con­fronted, brings the story to a thor­oughly sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion.

The book is ir­re­sistibly read­able, both darkly funny and a sus­pense­ful page-turner, and with many sar­donic things to say about the pur­suit of fame and about the lit­er­ary world and its ri­val­ries. “You know writ­ers”, Mau­rice ob­serves near the end. “They can be mer­ci­less in how they use each other to get to the top. I’m sur­prised more of them don’t kill each other.”

And just as Pa­tri­cia High­smith made us com­plicit in the ac­tions of the mur­der­ously so­cio­pathic Tom Ri­p­ley, one of Boyne’s achieve­ments here is to make his own psy­chopath so out­ra­geously in­trigu­ing that we’re as fas­ci­nated as we’re ap­palled by the ter­ri­ble things he does.

This sus­pense­ful page-turner has many sar­donic things to say about the pur­suit of fame and about the lit­er­ary world

Re­turn to form: Boyne’s been let down in his re­cent adult fic­tion by set-ups that haven’t al­ways been plau­si­ble

FIC­TION A Lad­der to the Sky John Boyne Dou­ble­day, hard­back, 350 pages, €19.10

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