Sunday, August 5, 2018

Book Review: "A Ladder to the Sky" by John Boyne


When you get ready to read a book by an author whose two previous books wound up at the top of your year-end best lists (and they're truly among some of the best books you've read, at least in the last decade), you get a little nervous whether lightning will strike thrice, or whether you're putting too much pressure on the book. (I am the one who has preached measured expectations when reading new books by favorite authors, because each new book deserves to be weighed on its own merit, not compared to others the author has written.)

All that being said, John Boyne, author of The Absolutist (see my review) and The Heart's Invisible Furies (see my review), has done it again. He has created an unsympathetic, morally dubious character who is utterly unforgettable, and has slayed me in the process.

Maurice Swift is a handsome young writer with a tremendous amount of ambition, but he lacks the talent to back it up. No matter. When he meets noted novelist Erich Ackermann at a West Berlin hotel in 1988, he immediately recognizes that the older man is attracted to him. Ackermann is desperately lonely, and is energized by Maurice's companionship, so he invites the young man to travel with him around the world to participate in different literary events.

Maurice uses his sex appeal, and the tantalizing promise of giving Ackermann more of him, to encourage the writer to divulge a secret he has long kept hidden from the world, a secret with potentially damaging consequences if it is discovered, despite the fact that it happened when Ackermann was a teenager in the midst of World War II. Maurice realizes this story will be the perfect basis for his first novel, so once he gets what he needs from the man, he's ready to move on—and he doesn't seem to care what it does to Ackermann, or his career.

But once Maurice gets a taste of literary fame, he can't imagine life without it. After an encounter with famed writer Gore Vidal which makes him uncertain of how far his looks can help him succeed, he moves from literary circle to literary circle, from the U.S. to London and all over the world, in search of his next opportunity. And as he moves through his life, the stakes get higher and higher—until there's nothing he won't do for fame—but is a life alone worth the acclaim of success?

Although there are similarities to The Talented Mr. Ripley, A Ladder to the Sky is a novel all its own. Maurice is an utterly amoral character, and as much as you dislike him, you have to admire his cunning, his ambition, his single-minded pursuit of fame. We've seen this story before, but in Boyne's hands the suspense crackles, the longing of those Maurice strings along is tremendously affecting, and you can't wait to see whether he'll get his comeuppance.

Boyne throws some surprising twists into the plot, and takes the story to a different level. He's one of those storytellers that hooks you from the very start, and keeps you engrossed in the plot from start to finish. While his last two novels have remained in my mind because of the way they touched my heart, A Ladder to the Sky will stay in my mind because of Maurice Swift's character and his unbridled ambition.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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