Maurice Swift is one of life’s takers. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is the story of his life, told mostly by a series of people he meets, spends time with, has relationships with. Note that I don’t say ‘and who he loves’, because Maurice Swift loves only himself. He is single-minded and does what he needs to do to get on and get what he wants; he wants to be a major novelist and, oddly for such a self-obsessed person, a father. I read the book in a strange state of tension wondering to what lows he would next sink, waiting for him to get his just desserts.
Boyne’s novels are always thought-provoking and this is no different. But I found it a difficult novel to read in that Maurice is not the sort of person you want to know. He lies, dissembles, steals, discriminates, copies, exploits and basically sucks dry a person until, when he has got all he needs, he moves on. We first encounter Maurice in West Berlin in 1988. The sixth novel of sixty six year old Erich Ackermann has won a prize and, on the subsequent publicity tour, he notices a young waiter in the hotel bar. Maurice introduces himself as a fan and mentions he wants to be a writer too. He becomes Ackermann’s assistant for six months as they travel Europe on Ackermann’s book tour. Maurice allows Erich to look longingly at him but does not allow him to touch, instead he encourages Erich to tell a story from his youth. As Erich says, “This was a part of my life that I’d locked away for many decades, never confiding the story in a single person.”
A short Interlude follows Part One, told by Gore (later revealed as American author Gore Vidal) from his Italian villa La Rondinaia. By now Maurice’s debut novel has been published and well received. But Gore is wiser than Erich and sends Maurice on his way. Part Two moves forward a few years and Maurice is married. This is Edith’s story. She has published her first novel to much acclaim, is writing a second and is a creative writing tutor department in Norwich. In contrast, her husband is struggling to complete a new novel and reacts badly to pointed questioning by Edith’s students. Maurice does not handle failure well and Edith fears his mood swings and cold reactions to her. She does not share her novel, her ideas or her drafts but is sensitive to his mood swings. Until one day his mood changes. Given Maurice’s history, I knew what was going to happen but how it happened was unexpected. Boyne has created a nasty villain, arrogant, with a sense of entitlement; but believable. Haven’t we all known a bully who sees what he wants and takes it as of right?
We don’t see directly inside Maurice’s head until well into the second half of the novel. Now living in New York with his son Daniel, he is editor and owner of Stori, an exclusive literary magazine dedicated to short stories. Given the publicity with his latest novel, The Tribesman, Maurice and Stori are fashionable and many unproven writers submit their stories to him. When he is called to his son’s school because seven-year-old Daniel has hit a girl who kissed him, for the first time we hear a story from Maurice’s schooldays and the beginnings of his plagiarism. The ending is brilliant, and most unexpected.
This is a novel about plagiarism, theft, honour or rather the lack of it, and writing, wrapped up in a plot that will make you gasp out loud as the psychological twists tighten.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A LADDER TO THE SKY by @john_boyne #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3wm via @SandraDanby