A LADDER TO THE SKY, by John Boyne
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.