Aspiring writer Maurice Swift, whose desire for fame exceeds his talent, uses a chance meeting with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann in a West Berlin hotel in 1988 to obtain secrets about Ackermann's wartime activities, which becomes material for his first novel. Once Maurice has had a taste of literary fame, he knows he can stop at nothing in pursuit of that high. Moving from the Amalfi Coast, where he matches wits with Gore Vidal, to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top. But the higher he climbs, the further he has to fall.
This novel is another example of John Boyne's incredible talent in developing a fascinating plot with fully-developed characters. His books are immensely readable, difficult to put down and always memorable.
The main character in A Ladder to the Sky is completely unlike any of his previous characters by the mere fact that he is more the villain than the hero. You find yourself loathing Maurice Swift even though he has a tendency to raise good questions about intellectual property and ownership. Yet, for all your dislike of Maurice, the story is compulsively readable. You want to find out how he could possibly become an even more deplorable human than he has already revealed himself to be all while anticipating the moment when his peers realize the truth. It is a novel which makes you question the answer to the age-old question of how authors come by the ideas for their stories just as it makes you wonder about the veracity of the picture of the publishing world Mr. Boyne, through Maurice, presents. I loved every minute of it.
This is a twisty and twisted novel. As many have mentioned it rifs on The Talented Mr. Ripley, but perhaps even more so on All About Eve. I won't rehash the plot but I will say that I loved the focus on how writers get stories, and the sometimes troubling circumstances. All writers steal other people"s stories. Most writers have some empathy, and so they make those stories their own rather than simply commiting the story to paper with better grammar and style, but isn't recognizing, spiffing up, and making use of others' stories a true skill -- maybe even an art? If we accept that writers appropriate stories, then how much of a leap is it to stealing others' work? And then what must be done to keep one's literary bona fides intact. And then what must be done to cover one's trail. Maurice has his hands full with all these actions and questions, and what he has done and still.must do to keep the charade going. Turns out psychopaths can be wildly entertaining as they go about their business.
Boyne tells this story from so many perspectives and he never falters. Its not just different voices but entirely different writing styles. and all are pretty perfect. In a best among equals race though, the section where Maurice meets Gore Vidal is one of the best and funniest things I have ever read.
I will be reading more John Boyne, lots more.
But let me back up. Overall I enjoyed this book even though I wasn’t prepared to. I hesitated a lot over even starting it because it features a sociopath, and it’s a good depiction of one. Maurice is classic. First, he’s lazy. Second, he doesn't see other people as people, but only as objects to be used and manipulated for his own ends. Third, he honestly doesn’t see a thing wrong with anything he’s done.
Using an emotionless psychopath as the hub to anchor highly emotional stories is a pretty good choice. Otherwise it would be tough to connect the secret homosexual longings of a German man in the late 1930s to a woman of color writer and teacher in the 1990s. Plus using Maurice as the tool he made of the people around him is pretty neat even if it wasn’t deliberate. Although the individual outlooks and internal struggles of Erick and Edith are very different, their destructions were equally gut-wrenching.
From my comfortable spectator’s seat it is hard for me not to judge them too harshly. They both had evidence of what Maurice really was right in front of them; especially Edith. She lives with his cruelty, idleness and selfishness and suffers at his intense mood swings and temper. No way would I put up with that, but she does. Had she taken the least precaution with her work, she might have prevented his theft. Of course she doesn’t see sending drafts to her editor as a precaution; what does she have to protect against anyway? She doesn’t see her husband as a threat and so not even an outline or a synopsis crosses her editor’s desk.
The interlude with Gore Vidal was fun and interesting. Maurice didn’t impress and Vidal wasn’t taken in, but it wasn’t a victory for either. More of a draw. Vidal didn’t lose any face, standing or suffer from his meeting Maurice, and Maurice didn’t add another victim to his growing list. Neither did he get all that bothered by his failure to make Vidal a conquest or by Vidal’s obvious contempt. If he couldn’t take the little asshole down a peg no one could and it sets Maurice’s character more firmly.
Finally we have what is obviously a set up from the beginning. Enter Theo Field, a 20-year-old student doing a thesis on Maurice. His introductory letter is the perfect hook - at once full of fan-boy flattery and plans to turn his paper into a book, Theo also mentions his father’s job at Random House and his own non-threatening choice of biographer rather than novelist. Of course the now degraded and solitary Maurice will meet with him. I quivered at the prospect of his comeuppance and I got it. Kinda (see first paragraph).
Theo’s skillful manipulation is a thing of beauty with Maurice as its victim. From his eager-to-please fawning to his adoption of Maurice’s dead son Daniel’s looks, habits and dress, Theo plays Maurice perfectly. Over time Maurice can’t believe that he’s being so disrespectful, but can’t dislodge himself from the hook - a biography of his genius is the least he is due.
It’s during this period that Maurice’s advanced alcoholism brings his downfall. Not only does he start to mistake Theo for Daniel, he starts to reveal his crimes, some knowingly and brazenly
Evidence? What kind of thesis is this? What kind of book? The vengeful sort. He reveals his true identity and aim;
As I said, there is some comeuppance, but it isn’t convincing.
“You’ve heard the wonderful news, I presume?” “No. Has Mr. Trump died?”
Maurice Swift is young, handsome and utterly charming. He also possesses an unbridled ambition to become a famous writer. The key component he lacks, is talent. Using, his other beguiling attributes, he will find a way and does. This is the rise and inevitable fall of Maurice, as he moves through the years, climbing toward success leaving heartache and devastation in his wake.
I loved Boyne's previous novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies and he has done it again here. The writing is strong and assured, an author at the top of his game, delivering a literary All About Eve, with a much nastier and ruthless streak. Highly recommended.
Maurice Swift now has my vote for one of the most ruthless men in literature. He will stop at nothing in order to get ahead. John Boyne, A Ladder to the Sky, shows us a character bound and determined to get a published novel even though he doesn't have any original plot ideas. He does, however, manages to put together a story that makes him climb to the top of the charts. But how he does that is most questionably a matter of ethics that will have you turning the pages quickly. This is my second John Boyne book but will not be my last. His writing flows very easy and makes for a quick and fascinating read. If you haven't read any of Boyne's novels, A Ladder to the Sky, is a great place to start. I'm sure you will not be disappointed and will find yourself a new author to follow.
I would like to thank NetGalley and Hogarth Publishing for suppling me with a copy of this book for an honest review.
The story is told by varying characters and what makes the writing so extraordinary is that it fits the author’s definition of what a writer does: “ ‘Uses his or her imagination. Tries to understand how it feels to be alive in a moment that never existed with a person who never lived, saying words that were never spoken aloud’ “
But where to find a title that fits - sometimes it is drawn from a proverb and only at the end does it all make perfect sense. The title, the characters, the writing, simply superb.
Thank you NetGalley and Crown Publishing for a copy of this most amazing book.
Evil personified can be very captivating - almost like visiting with the rich and famous - which we also do in this novel when Gore Vidal steps in for a few pages. Vidal calls our spade a spade in his own inimitable way. I purchased this book at full price, but do not consider this fact to be essential to my own semi-unbiased assessment. Overall - loved it.
Now I am the type of reader who enjoys being given a character who tugs at my heart, someone in which I can hope for cherish. But....I also say if you can't give me that, then give me some stellar prose, or a plot that is intriguing, pulls me into the story. And.....yes that is definitely the case here, this plot pulled me in, like watching a train wreck I couldn't pull away. Can beauty alone, present a blind that allows one to excuse another's actions? Do those who are extremely good looking have an unfair advantage, treated differently than those who do not? Apparently so. This is a book where it would be so easy to give away part of the plot, so I will stop here. The less said the better I this case.
Boyne, to me is an amazing writer. He writes so many different types of books, but though I have not yet read all of his, the ones I have, did not let me down. I look forward to seeing ehere he takes me next.
ARC from bookbrowse.
A Ladder to the Sky is the story of an attractive young man, Maurice, who wants to be a writer. He uses his looks and charm to attach himself to a series of successful authors across the world. He builds his own career as a novelist by stealing stories from them, while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.
Boyne is having fun with the well-worn question, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and wondering what would happen to an author who could write good prose but couldn’t invent a story of his own. I’m not sure I accept the premise – I’ve read plenty of literary novels where the prose is gorgeous but the story weak and unrealised and that doesn’t seem to stop them winning awards. But it’s a fun idea and a playful treatment.
I loved the black comedy and Maurice’s trajectory through literary circles. It’s a world that’s familiar to me from the days when I was on the fringes of traditional publishing, albeit at a lower level. I think the constant hustling, the fine line between adoration and envy, the comparisonitis are due to the fact that the conventional markers of success – salary, job title, professional qualifications – are absent so your status is always shifting. The intriguing question is why Maurice, with his good looks and easy opportunism, doesn’t inveigle himself into a more glamorous and lucrative business.
Perhaps the same things that make people want to write and be among writers – the love of the craft, the desire to belong to a world of books and ideas – apply to him too. It suggests that his passion for literature is genuine, even if the rest of him is a lie.
A few real writers make an appearance in the novel which is fun and adds to the writerly in-jokiness of the thing. There is an interlude written from the point of view of Gore Vidal which is quite entertaining if you’re a fan, and works by Maude Avery, the fictional novelist from The Heart’s Invisible Furies, are namechecked.
The irony, of course, is that Maurice is constantly inventing in life, with his trail of deceit and manipulation. But it seems Maurice can’t get to the end, and that’s true of this novel as well.
In the later part of the book we learn about key events from Maurice’s point of view. This only works if he has something to add, a radically different perspective, an intriguing justification. He doesn’t. Boyne also has an annoying tic of writing dialogue scenes as if they were verbatim, which means he often repeats at length stories the reader has already read. Why he can’t just write ‘I told him about the death of my mother’ and move on, I don’t know.
Maurice was most interesting when seen through the eyes of others, when he had the dark allure of a cool, calculating psychopath. When you start learning what he thinks himself, it’s quite banal. Perhaps that’s the intention, he is, after all, a man who can’t make up a story, but that and a slightly laboured twist meant that, for me, the end of the book didn’t live up to the rest.
I received a copy of A Ladder to the Sky from the publisher via Netgalley.
This review first appeared on my blog katevane.com/blog
John Boyne has created another masterpiece with A Ladder to the Sky. Maurice, self-centered beyond redemption, is an aspiring writer. The barrier to his success is that he lacks the talent of original thought. Blessed with movie star good looks, Maurice charms older, esteemed writers into becoming his mentors, using them for what he can, then dumping them, often with devastating consequences. As the novel progresses, Maurice’s ambition grows into a monster that he must keep feeding.
John Boyne is a rare author who has created such a despicable main character who also captures the reader’s enthusiasm. Maurice’s shamelessness is juxtaposed with his victims’ inexplicable adoration which creates tension that never waivers. The ending is a resounding smash.
Many thanks to Penguin First to Read for this advance copy in exchange for my review.
John Boyne’s latest novel is an astonishing piece of art. I wouldn’t stop reading after only a couple of pages. As in other novels before, he is brilliant at creating interesting and outstanding characters who act in a perfectly natural and authentic way. But also the set-up of “A Ladder to The Sky” superb: first, he gives the characters a voice who have fallen for Maurice; we only get the view of the outside and just as the narrators, we as the readers, too, are deceived by Maurice and feel anger and fury because of his shameless behaviour. It is only in the last part that Maurice himself gets to tell his view.
I assume the title is an allusion to the famous “Ladder of fortune”, at least it strongly reminded me of it. Yet, Maurice shows that it doesn’t need honesty and morality to succeed, riches and reputation also come if you are clever at deceiving and manipulating others and if you are cold-blooded enough to betray you own wife.
Apart from the outstanding characters and the noteworthy structure, I also highly appreciate Boyne’s style of writing. It’s sublime and moving and you get the impression that he really cares for his characters – maybe not that much for the evil Maurice. The plot twists and turns and even though you often already have a bad feeling of what might come, you don’t want to believe that this could actually happen. It hurts at times, but this makes it just more authentic.
The main character, Maurice Swift, is a narcissist. A psychopath. No two ways about it. I hate him. But I have to know, how far will he go? I loved how multiple narrators tell his story: we learn of Maurice and the publishing world through their viewpoints, their hopes, their desires. His pawns will be remembered long after their tales have ended and Maurice has moved on. This is definitely a tale of dark morals. Thought-provoking, well-told, very memorable and a surprising page-turner.
The book opens with celebrated author Erich Ackerman returning to West Berlin in 1988 to promote his latest novel, Dread, which had recently won a prestigious literary award (known simply as ‘The Prize’, although presumably modelled on the Booker). Erich had been born in Germany in the 1920s, and had been a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth, and then fought in the German army during the Second World War. After the war, he had relocated to England where he had studied literature at Cambridge before going on to teach English at a local school. Meanwhile he had continued his studies, and upon securing his doctorate he also landed an academic post at his old college, subsequently becoming a professor of modern literature. Dread had been his sixth novel, and first critical and commercial success, and he was starting to enjoy the trappings that relative celebrity had brought.
While dining in his Berlin hotel after a reading from his novel, his eye falls upon an especially attractive young waiter. When the waiter’s shift is over, Erich manages to talk to him and over a drink in a nearby bar he learns that the waiter is English, and called Maurice Swift. It emerges that Swift has fled from a stultifying family life at home and is pursuing a gap year experience, just without the university course to follow. He also professes to an urge to write. Utterly enchanted by Swift’s charms, Erich takes him on as a personal assistant and amanuensis during the rest of his promotional tour around a selection of major European cities. As their tour proceeds, Erich gradually shares with Swift some of his early experiences from his youth in Nazi Germany, and in particular the details of his great unrequited adolescent love.
What Ackerman fails to notice is Swift’s burning ambition to achieve fame, at any price. Ackerman continues to recount some of his dreadful experiences from his youth, and Swift laps them up. What Ackerman fails to recognise is that Swift is storing these stories up, and writing his own novel, essentially plagiarising Ackerman’s own story, and merely tweaking a few of the details. When Swift finally publishes his story, he is himself feted as a potential winner of The Prize, while Ackerman is subjected to acrimony and disdain when some of the episodes of his youth are revealed. This scenario is merely the opening episode of a story of literary rivalry, plagiarism and unfettered ambition.
Boyne writes beautifully, and his characters are immensely credible. Swift is a fascinating character (and his treatment of Ackerman is merely an appetiser for a career of Machiavellian exploitation of those who try to help him or show him any support) who shows no shame for his growing catalogue of literary misdemeanours.
Boyne also gives us a lovely vignette involving a visit by an American author, another writer who finds himself enchanted by (and consequently in thrall to) Maurice Swift, to Gore Vidal’s Italian home. Vidal is at his malicious best, but is perhaps the only person who sees Swift for what he is.
Swift goes on to marry a successful female novelist, but finds himself struggling with writer’s block, exacerbated by the plaudits offered to his wife. Still, he hasn’t given up his dreams of consolidating, and extending, his own career as a writer, and he is prepared to do almost anything that is necessary.
A delicious melange of biting humour, desperate ambition and ultimate literary opportunism.
Maurice is introduced early in the book, although at that point, it is not clear that Maurice is the main character. Rather, the book goes through all of the people that influenced Maurice's career. The reader gets insight into his head and how he justifies all of his actions.
It's hard to like a book with such an awful main character, but I did like this one. Boyne is an amazing writer and I devoured this book. It did start a bit slow, but once I got to the second part, I couldn't put it down. I would highly recommend this to others, especially those who liked any of Boyne's other works.
This novel is about a bad guy, a really, really bad guy, a psycho: Maurice. He lurks among the writing community. He fancies himself a great Prize [sic]-worthy author of fiction. And he is a good writer, but his stories are boring. So he cannot become a recognized author who can at least get on the short list for The Prize [sic] unless, as he sees it, he inserts himself into the lives of successful authors. He uses and abuses, as the saying goes. And he’ll do anything. (I capitalized "The Prize" because it is spelled that way in the book.)
Through his characters, Boyne often says what I often say when I review a book: the writing may be good, but that is not enough. A good book is also driven by a plot. Without that, the book is boring. And that is Maurice’s problem: he cannot come up with plots. He needs story ideas. And he’ll stop at nothing.
A LADDER TO THE SKY is, in a way, difficult to read because one bad thing after another happens. Now and then, though, someone is wise to Maurice. Unfortunately, his beauty attracts both men and women, so he gets away with years of exploitation.
Do yourself a favor and read A LADDER TO THE SKY.