Fiction – Kindle edition; Black Swan; 488 pages; 2019.
According to an old proverb, ambition is like setting a ladder to the sky — a pointless waste of energy. It can also lead to a long and painful fall.
John Boyne’s latest novel, A Ladder to the Sky, is very much focused on ambition and what happens when you forsake all else — your relationships, your family, your ethics — in the desire to succeed at all cost.
It’s a rip-roaring read, starring one of the most manipulative and self-obsessed characters you are ever likely to come across in contemporary fiction, and I loved the way it explores personal morality through the prism of a would-be writer hellbent on topping the bestseller lists.
That writer is Maurice Swift, a charming, good-looking man, whose terribly immoral tale is told in three parts using three different points of view.
In part one we meet the famous German writer whose career Maurice destroys by penning a novel that reveals he’d unwittingly sent two Jews to their deaths during World War Two; in the second, we are introduced to Maurice’s wife, an English tutor and successful writer, whose manuscript he steals when she’s hospitalised and which he publishes under his own name to much critical and commercial acclaim; and finally, in part three, we hear directly from Maurice himself, now an elderly man down and out in London, at a time when his ego is being massaged by a literature student who befriends, then interviews, him for his dissertation.
The book also features two highly entertaining interludes — the first has Maurice visiting Gore Vidal in his Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest, on the Amalfi Coast, propositioning him and then being humiliated by him; and in the second, we’re thrust into Maurice’s new life, about a decade later, where he runs a successful literary magazine in Manhattan but steals the ideas in submissions for his own ends.
Success at all costs
As you can probably tell, Maurice isn’t a particularly nice man: he will stop at nothing to pursue his dream of becoming a famous writer. Self-absorbed, sociopathic and narcissistic, Maurice doesn’t let his inability to come up with creative ideas, nor his lack of writing skills, hold him back. He will use people, steal their intellectual copyright, purloin their personal stories and pass off others’ work as his own. He truly doesn’t care.
Part of the fun of reading this rather chunky novel — apart from the cracking pace, the snappy dialogue and the withering put downs — is wondering whether Maurice’s repellent behaviour is ever going to catch up with him. Will anyone realise what he’s up to and put an end to it — and his career?
The book also has some tongue-in-cheek digs at the publishing industry, including the obsession with literary prizes, creative writing courses, publicity “buzz” and bestseller lists. It’s like a hilarious insider’s take down of everything that’s truly rotten with the literary world.
But the best thing about A Ladder to the Sky is that it is a genuinely fun read, with a brilliantly redemptive ending. I galloped through it, marvelling at Boyne’s rich mastery of plot and storytelling, and his uncanny ability to turn the art of novel writing into something so dastardly and chilling. Hands down, this is my favourite read of the year so far, and I’m now eager to read more by this super-talented writer —recommendations welcome in the comment box below.
This is my second book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award. I plan to read all of the books on the shortlist before the winner is announced on 29 May.