A LAD­DER TO THE SKY, by John Boyne

DNA Magazine - - BOOK REVIEWS -

If you like a novel with an im­moral main char­ac­ter, John Boyne has cre­ated a cracker for you. This story of grasp­ing am­bi­tion is set in the sup­pos­edly gen­teel world of pub­lish­ing.

Mau­rice Swift is a cap­ti­vat­ing young man who wants to be a fa­mous writer. He can write, but what he lacks is the heart of any great novel – good sto­ries. So he steals them.

His first vic­tim, Erich Ack­er­mann, a dis­tin­guished nov­el­ist in his six­ties, a gay man who closed him­self off from in­ti­macy after a tragic in­fat­u­a­tion and deadly be­trayal in his youth. He be­comes cap­ti­vated by Mau­rice’s “pow­er­ful blend of vi­tal­ity and im­pul­sive sex­u­al­ity” and helps his pro­tégé gain in­tro­duc­tions into lit­er­ary cir­cles. For the first time in al­most 50 years he con­fides the story of his one, tragic love and Mau­rice laps it up.

The struc­ture of the novel is ac­com­plished, with mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tors telling the story of their un­do­ing at the hands of Mau­rice Swift: Ack­er­mann, Mau­rice’s wife Edith who eclipses his lit­er­ary suc­cess to her own peril, and even real-life writer Gore Vi­dal. It’s only in the novel’s fi­nal sec­tion that Mau­rice him­self takes over du­ties as nar­ra­tor.

The in­ter­lude set at Gore Vi­dal’s home La Ron­d­i­naia on the Amalfi Coast is one of the novel’s high­lights. Mau­rice has been brought there by his new lit­er­ary con­quest, Dash Hardy, in the hopes of se­cur­ing a blurb for Mau­rice’s book from Vi­dal – or per­haps some­thing more! But Vi­dal is shrewd enough to see through Mau­rice in­stantly and at the end of this sec­tion he dresses him down: “I’ve known a lot of whores in my life... both men and women. And in gen­eral, I’ve al­ways found them to be good com­pany, with a highly evolved sense of hon­our. A whore will never cheat you, they have too much in­tegrity for that. But you, Mr Swift, you give the pro­fes­sion a bad name.”

There’s won­der­fully witty di­a­logue in the Gore Vi­dal sec­tion but it’s al­most eclipsed later in the book by the acidic ex­changes be­tween Mau­rice and a ri­val nov­el­ist, Gar­rett Colby, who was once a stu­dent of Edith’s.

Ed­mund White pops up in a brief cameo to­wards the end and read­ers of Boyne’s fine pre­vi­ous novel The Heart’s In­vis­i­ble Fu­ries will note the ref­er­ence to Maude Avery, the nov­el­ist char­ac­ter from that book.

This is a page-turner de­tail­ing Mau­rice’s au­da­cious am­bi­tion and in­sid­i­ous lit­er­ary theft, fu­eled by his se­duc­tion of both sexes. Read­ers are likely to be se­duced by this du­plic­i­tous schem­ing an­ti­hero as well. He will re­mind many of Pa­tri­cia High­smith’s Ri­p­ley.

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