I don’t normally read books by the same author within the space of a few weeks but after enjoying The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne so much in July, I was very keen to read his latest novel ‘A Ladder to the Sky’. It tells the story of Maurice Swift, an aspiring young writer who meets moderately successful novelist Erich Ackermann in Berlin in the late 1980s. Erich becomes infatuated with Maurice and reveals a long-held secret from his youth in Nazi Germany. Maurice later publishes a novel based on Erich’s secret to great critical acclaim but struggles to follow the success of his debut. He can write average prose but ideas, plots and characters don’t come naturally to him at all, so he goes in search of other people’s stories, resorting to extreme measures in order to pass them off as his own work.
As with ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’, Boyne moves easily between biting satire and tragedy. On the satirical side, he sends up the pretentious side of the literary world brilliantly, particularly the publishing industry’s obsessions with awards, sales, reputation and petty rivalries, raising several ethical questions along the way about plagiarism, blurring non-fiction and fiction and the origins of ideas and who can take credit for them. Maurice’s stint as editor of a literary magazine is particularly well done and brief cameos of Gore Vidal and Maude Avery, the latter a character from ‘The Heart’s Invisible Furies’, are a nice touch. On the more serious side, few authors write about shame, guilt, embarrassment and unrequited love or lust as poignantly as Boyne does and the first part in which Erich reveals the secret from his past is very affecting.
Maurice is a slippery antihero and his psychopathic behaviour oscillating between charming and ruthless is believably portrayed by Boyne even if his crimes end up becoming a bit far-fetched towards the end. There were times when I wondered why Maurice didn’t seek a much more lucrative career in something like tabloid journalism where his talent for exploiting the stories of vulnerable people could have earned him a great deal of money. However, it is clear that he is attracted by the mythical status and romanticised lifestyle of being a celebrated novelist and will go to any lengths to achieve his ambition no matter who has to pay the ultimate price along the way.
’A Ladder to the Sky’ is a very entertaining and compelling piece of psychological literary fiction, so long as you don’t mind having your credulity stretched ever so slightly in places. Many thanks to Random House UK, Transworld for sending me a review copy of ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ via NetGalley.