Monday 20 August 2018

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne - Irresistibly readable and darkly funny

Fiction: A Ladder to the Sky, John Boyne, Doubleday, ­hardback, 350 pages, €19.10

Return to form: Boyne's been let down in his recent adult fiction by set-ups that haven't always been plausible
Return to form: Boyne's been let down in his recent adult fiction by set-ups that haven't always been plausible

John Boland

John Boyne's new novel, set in the literary world, features a psychopath so intriguing he'll keep you fascinated and appalled to the very end.

This is a hugely enjoyable novel about ambition, fraud, murder and the writing game from an author who, ever since global success of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in 2006, has been fizzing with ideas, is a dab hand at telling a story and creates vividly arresting characters, too.

He's been let down in his recent adult fiction by a weakness for set-ups that haven't always been plausible - his central priest in A History of Loneliness (2014) was gormless to a fault, while some of the anachronisms in The Heart's Invisible Furies (2017) stretched the reader's credulity.

But that doesn't happen in his new novel, which is both a bravura piece of storytelling and totally persuasive from beginning to end - no mean feat in a book that spans three decades, has various first-person narrators and quite a lot of tales to tell, all of them relating to the sinister central character of Maurice Swift.

Yet at first he's not the central character at all. Instead we're in the confiding company of 66-year-old Berlin-born, British-based writer Erich Ackermann, whose six short novels "and an ill-advised collection of poetry" had never been successful until the last of the novels "won an important literary award" the previous autumn.

So now, in 1988, he's back in Berlin for a public reading, and in his hotel dining room he spies a young waiter "so very beautiful" that he immediately becomes infatuated with him. The waiter, young Maurice from the north of England, declares himself a "great admirer" of Erich's work and agrees to accompany the older writer to literary engagements in Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, Paris and New York.

Along the way, he gets Erich to reveal more and more about his past life, crucially a disclosure of sexual jealousy that had led the teenage Erich to betray a half-Jewish boy he fancied to the Nazis, thereby causing both the boy's murder and that of his girlfriend and her family.

Maurice appears to make little of this story he's been hearing but subsequently uses the material to write a bestselling novel, revealing in interviews that the book's main character is a fictionalised version of Erich and that the story is essentially true - thus leading to Erich being ostracised and to his work being removed from bookshelves around the world.

This opening section of A Ladder to the Sky is a novel in itself, and an engrossingly lively one, too, but we're less than a 100 pages into a 350-page book, and there are other characters to meet, not least in the 40-page "interlude" that follows.

This takes place two years later on the Amalfi coast, in the villa owned by Gore Vidal, whom the now feted Maurice and his lovelorn middle-aged companion, second-rate novelist Dash Hardy, have come to visit - a disdainful Vidal, who has quickly got the true measure of Maurice, remarking that "there are people who will sacrifice anyone and anything to get ahead".

And so it proves in the book's next section, narrated 10 years later by Edith, an admired thirty-something novelist giving a creative writing course in Norwich and married to Maurice, whose subsequent literary career hasn't gone well. Indeed, when Edith considers the novels that followed his bestselling debut, she deems them "utterly devoid of authenticity", though she keeps those thoughts to herself.

Edith is also working on a new novel, so how will Maurice contrive to regain his former status and fame? I don't want to give too much away because among the book's pleasures are plot twists that you don't see coming, so suffice to say that a rickety staircase has a role in this story and that a decade later Maurice is to be found in Manhattan as editor of a cutting-edge magazine devoted to new fiction - all the while stealing ideas and material from the stories he rejects.

Now aged 45, he has also acquired, courtesy of an obliging Italian chambermaid, the son he had always wanted, though the reader now knows enough about Maurice and his ambitions to fear for this boy - and, indeed, for anyone Maurice perceives to be getting in his way.

So will he ever get his comeuppance? I'll say no more except that the final section, which is set in the London of 2015 and finds the ageing Maurice with a new set of obstacles to be confronted, brings the story to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

The book is irresistibly readable, both darkly funny and a suspenseful page-turner, and with many sardonic things to say about the pursuit of fame and about the literary world and its rivalries. "You know writers", Maurice observes near the end. "They can be merciless in how they use each other to get to the top. I'm surprised more of them don't kill each other."

And just as Patricia Highsmith made us complicit in the actions of the murderously sociopathic Tom Ripley, one of Boyne's achievements here is to make his own psychopath so outrageously intriguing that we're as fascinated as we're appalled by the terrible things he does.

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