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A LADDER TO THE SKY by John Boyne Kirkus Star


by John Boyne

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-9848-2301-4
Publisher: Hogarth

An all-consuming ambition to be a successful writer drives a young man down unusual paths to literary acclaim in this compelling character study.

Boyne (The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017, etc.) opens his 11th novel for adults with novelist Erich Ackermann, 66, telling how he was beguiled by the handsome young would-be writer Maurice Swift, at whose urging Ackermann reveals his early life in Nazi Germany and a terrible secret. The revelations become Swift’s successful first novel, and Ackermann’s career collapses as the young man stokes media attention by disclosing his source. Cut to the Amalfi Coast home of Gore Vidal and a third-person narrator describing Swift’s visit with a different older gay writer. Vidal has some good sharp-edged lines as he concedes that the young man is well-read and a good writer, but he also finds him cruelly abusive to his latest mentor. What Vidal doesn’t perceive is Swift’s one glaring, possibly implausible shortcoming: He has no imagination for fiction, no good original ideas for a story. The tension rises as Boyne plays on the question of how far Swift will go for a winning idea. He is married in the next section, his second novel has flopped, and four more unassisted efforts were all rejected. Meanwhile his wife’s fictional debut is well-received, and she feels her second novel will be even better. This leads to a chilling confrontation, made all the more so as Boyne reveals why the wife’s narration addresses Swift as “you.” Other horrors lie ahead. The question of comeuppance is long left unanswered. Boyne lightens the book’s deep shadows and amorality with amusing jabs at the fame game behind literary life, with its blurbs and prizes, acolytes and endless envy.

Boyne’s singular villain and well-sustained tension merit a good audience.