Book Notes: A Ladder to the Sky

I’m a compulsive buyer of bargain-priced e-books; if I did nothing else with my free time I might possibly be able to keep up with my purchases, but since I also watch TV and play video games I’ve more or less had to accept that collecting books and reading them are fundamentally unrelated habits. Part of the problem is that once I’ve bought one book by an author I feel more comfortable buying another, even if I’ve never read the first one. So it was that when John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky was a Kindle deal last month I felt authorized to buy it because I already had his Victorian ghost story This House is Haunted, which I bought in August 2020 and haven’t even tried to read. (The only thing about that that surprises me is that I would have guessed I bought it earlier. Probably I had considered but skipped it in a previous sale.)

It wasn’t just having another book by the same author that drew me to A Ladder to the Sky, though. It’s a literary thriller with dark satirical elements, a “What if Tom Ripley was an aspiring writer?” deal. Maurice Swift wants to be a writer, and he can put sentences together well enough, but he can’t come up with an idea to save his life. So he steals them from others, even if he has to ruin their lives in the process. The novel is divided into three parts with two interludes. The first four sections show Maurice honing his sociopathic version of the craft and rising to great heights, while in the fifth his charade is inevitably crumbling.

I say inevitably, and the biggest drawback of A Ladder to the Sky is that the course of each section is pretty predictable; not only the fact but also the manner of the various betrayals is thoroughly telegraphed, though I’ll admit one aspect of the ending took me by surprise. Straightforwardness of plot wouldn’t be a problem if the book were dramatically richer, but most of the characters are two-dimensional satires of the parochial ruthlessness of writers. Maurice himself is a little more interesting; monstrous, to be sure, but there’s something fascinating in his detached intellectual curiosity about his own lack of emotional response. This might, I suspect have been a stronger book if Maurice had been put at the center from the start. Instead the first two thirds or so are narrated by other, generally less interesting characters, though an interlude from the perspective of Gore Vidal is delightful, irrespective of how much its Vidal is like the real one.

A Ladder to the Sky is never less than elegantly written– the writers’ witty attacks on each other’s achievements may not be profound, but they’re certainly entertaining– and the plot flows along well enough that its predictability never becomes a crippling flaw. Overall it’s a book I’m very glad to have read, and I suspect I’ll pick up others by Boyne if I see them on sale. I may even read them.

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