A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
Published by Hogarth Press
Publication date: November 13, 2018
So far this week I’ve reviewed two very dark, but outstanding novels. It’s time to wrap up the week and I’m back with a surprising (to me) author: John Boyne. His last novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies was one of my favorites from last year so it’s with a heavy heart I say that I didn’t care for his newest, A Ladder to the Sky. This may count as an It’s Not You, It’s Me because almost every other blogger I know loved the book. For me, very little about it worked and it mostly left me frustrated.
Maurice Swift is a handsome, charismatic young man. He also has a way with words, but not the necessary imagination to use his words to write novels. This would seem to be a problem because the only dream he’s ever had is to be a great novelist. But Maurice doesn’t let that stop him. Throughout A Ladder in the Sky Maurice parlays his looks and charm into stealing the creative ideas of real writers, polishing them up and selling them as his work. He achieves fleeting success, but nothing sustainable because when he has no other source, he writes his own dreadful books. Without any consistency, critics stop paying attention and he is ignored—a fate worse than death.
Like any other parasite, Maurice needs new blood to survive. His first prey is a gay, lonely, older writer. Maurice plays coy with a sexual ambiguity, all while cajoling the man into revealing a story from his past that will cause an uproar—catapulting Maurice to literary fame and destroying the man. From there he goes from victim to victim, creating the semblance of a normal personal life all while sucking the creative lifeblood out of those around him. The fact that he is never caught convinces him to become more brazen in his crimes.
A Ladder to the Sky is a very challenging book in that it pulled me in so many directions. I’m going to get meta here for a minute. The novel is about a highly skilled writer with no imagination. He can’t come up with ideas for novels so he spends his life stealing ideas from others. Here’s the meta part: Because Maurice gets his ideas from others, each of his novels is wildly different from the others. I’ve read two other Boyne books and both are completely different in style and tone than Ladder. Is Boyne obliquely unburdening himself? Highly unlikely, probably not, but it would be a slick twist to even insinuate that about oneself. At the very least, it’s a mind-bender and provocative discussion point.
Then there is the story, which feels too familiar for comfort. Without going into details or spoilers there is a significant piece of the plot that has great similarity to Unraveling Oliver. The novel also strongly echoes The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Wife. Granted, there are a limited number of plots out there, but Boyne’s imagination usually soars beyond my comprehension. To read a novel of his and repeatedly be reminded of other books feels unnerving and negatively colored my opinion of the book.
None of this is helped by the fact that the novel feels overworked. Maurice is a one-note, thoroughly unlikable character. This is clearly established when he steals Erich’s story, but Boyne hammers the point home too hard. The same can be said of some of the plot points and characters, which feel manipulated in an effort to get the story to come together. I wanted to love this book and I do still love the way Boyne writes, but A Ladder to the Sky falls short.