Friday 24 August 2018

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne   {Review by STELLA}
Maurice Swift - good-looking, charming, both sharp and silver-tongued, is looking for success. Success at any cost - that’s the cost to others rather than himself. In John Boyne’s most recent novel, A Ladder to the Sky, he has created a ruthless and ambitious young writer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. However, he has a problem: he’s not very imaginative. Yes, he can write, can turn a good phrase and spice up another’s work, but he struggles with ‘the story’. While waiting tables in Berlin, he meets critically acclaimed and recent winner of ‘The Prize’, author Erich Ackermann. Erich, who long has forsaken any hope of a romantic relationship, is entranced by the young Swift and quickly falls under his spell, despite realising he is behaving foolishly. Maurice, making the most of the obsession, working his charm, flatters the older man and finds himself invited (employed, in fact) to be Erich’s assistant on an international publicity tour - all this to Maurice’s advantage and Erich’s eventual dismissal. What Maurice wants is a story, and in Erich he finds one of Berlin on the brink of war, of young love (an unrequited love) and passionate anger. An anger that leads to a terrible outcome and a guilt that Erich has buried until now as he confides in Maurice. Erich is the first of several victims of the ‘crimes’ of Maurice Swift. As the novel follows the highs and lows of Swift’s writing career over several decades, we meet the people central to his life, all in some way unwitting players in his game and none more so than his wife of six years, fellow writer Edith Camberley. In all but the last section of the book, Maurice’s life is told through the voices of others, starting with Erich Ackermann until Maurice departs his life (dumps him cold). From here there is a sweet crisp interlude with Gore Vidal at his Amalfi residence, when Maurice arrives with his new mentor Hardy Dash - a middling American writer of some commercial success, a longtime friend of the Gore & Howard circle. This is sharp, witty writing - cleverly Goresque - and it will have you laughing out loud and cheering for at least one who does not fall under Maurice’s spell, being a dab hand at manipulation and subterfuge himself, yet less vicious than our antihero. Part 2 is told by Edith and follows the writer couple (yes, Edith has recently found success with her debut and a promising writing future seems assured) to Norwich where Edith has taken up a teaching position at the university. While Edith teaches and works on her second novel, she tries to support Maurice who is struggling on his third book and becoming increasingly testy. In this section of the novel, through Edith’s eyes, you begin to see the truly callous lows Maurice will stoop to get the story. He’s a parasite and you find yourself wanting to scream to Edith, "Get out of the room!”  before it’s too late. Several years later we find ourselves in New York with Maurice and his son. Now we are squarely in Maurice’s head, which is slightly unpleasant to say the least. Yet we are intrigued, drawn in and seduced by his story. He’s working, ironically, on his new novel, tentatively entitled ‘Other People’s Stories’. A Ladder to the Sky is a viciously witty portrayal of writers and writing and to what lengths one man will go to achieve his ambition.  Boyne will make you laugh, cry and cringe all in equal measures. Excellent and highly enjoyable, a novel of sharp observations and spoonfuls of unease.

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