Title: I Am the Messenger
Author: Markus Zusak
Genre: Young adult, humor, mystery
My rating: ★★★★★
Ed Kennedy’s CV isn’t at all impressive. All that’s in there are underage cabdriver, hopeless friendzone-dweller, and professional nobody. He lets most of his time trickle by in his shabby shack, playing cards with his friends and drinking coffee with his smelly dog. At nineteen he has come to accept that his life is headed nowhere…until he inadvertently foils a bank robbery. For a time he is hailed a hero by the local media, and just when he thinks the hype is dying, he receives an ace in the mail that details his next “missions.” Ed is chosen to care—he is chosen to be “the messenger.”
The messages, which Ed himself should ‘decode’ first, are eclectic. Some are larger than life and some are seemingly trivial, but all of them are guaranteed to mark a change in the lives of their recipients. Ed reluctantly embarks on a journey to “protect the diamonds, survive the clubs, dig deep through the spades, and feel the hearts.” A spark in him eventually grows and he begins to believe that after all of this, he will be able to move on from being a ‘nobody’ to being a ‘somebody.’
When I picked up I Am the Messenger, I lowered my expectations because I know that The Book Thief will always be my favorite Zusak gem. The latter set the bar at an incredible height. The former, however, proved to be a completely different beast; it doesn’t hold the beautifully quiet albeit intense tone of The Book Thief, but it gets wrapped in the raw voice of youth—the kind that easily resonates with its target audience and doesn’t need to bask in embellished words to elicit gasps from its readers. It may not land on the same tier as The Book Thief but it definitely will on a different ladder, more or less on the same level.
One of the things I really loved about I Am the Messenger is, of course, Zusak’s writing. All 357 pages of this book only vindicated that his wordplay will always be my personal kryptonite. It’s as if his prose contains magic that can leap off the page and touch you in ways no other book can: they stick onto your memory like a good mind barnacle and clutch to your heart like a much-needed emotional drug. How he does that, I will never know. All I know is that I’ve been under his writing spell and enjoyed every minute of it. Who can’t get addicted to a style like this? -
“I know that all of this will stay with me forever… things just keep going as long as memory can wield its ax, always finding a soft part in your mind to cut through and enter.”
If you think every sentence curls all poetic-like, you’re mistaken. I commend how the book manages to be largely lyrical and inspirational despite being a rather raunchy treat. It rounds up an average of three expletives per page and presents a wide array of lust-charged sections. Oh, and Ed, being the sarcasm-on-two-legs that he is, narrates his story in a tone edged with a cynical sense of humor. If you combine all those and plaster the word “motivational” across its bull’s eye, what you may imagine as an end product is one chaos of a novel that doesn’t know what it wants to be. But this book successfully presents a seamless blend of its clashing elements. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and heartwarming, both serious and hilarious. You don’t get a lot of that nowadays.
I love Ed as a character. His charm radiates from the fact that he has cataloged himself as a “nobody heading nowhere” and “just another stupid human” where in fact he is as extraordinary as one could get without donning capes or superhero spandex. His self-deprecation makes him all the more appealing. He may be a self-proclaimed Mr. Insufferable with a penchant for brooding about his stinking life, but he is not empty. His spirit isn’t drained out by the kicks life has given him prior to the beginning of the novel; he still has dreams, even if they are in a slumber inside him.
Even though the only “all access” pass we have is for inside Ed’s head, most of the other characters also appear to be well-molded. They are as multi-layered as real humans, dealing with their problems in the only way they can. But the thing here is, Zusak doesn’t try hard to make everyone pop out of the pages. Instead, he writes a realistic portrayal of other people from the limited perspective of a flawed human like Ed. We don’t get to know all their problems or thoughts or what drives them in life, but we do get to feel them the way Ed felt them.
Ironically, I find it odd that Audrey, the very person whom Ed has the strongest feelings for, is the one character that seems to be a little underdeveloped. Depicted as the girl who makes love to everybody but is afraid to love anybody, Audrey’s character almost has no concrete back-up to make the portrayal realistic enough. Maybe that’s why I’m not really satisfied with the fluffy contribution she had at the ending. For me, it’s a chink in this book’s armor.
World-building is handled well. The town Ed has known as his whole world emerges like a separate entity. Its restrictions, its inexplicable pull that seems to tuck everybody in, and the gamut of opportunities lying just outside its borders all seem to be real. If anything, the place contributes a lot to the character’s growth:
“It’s the person, not the place. If you left here, you’d have been the same anywhere else. If I ever leave this place—I’ll make sure I’m better here first.”
The build-up of the plot is a tad unconventional. Throughout the novel we are in constant search for Ed’s assignment sender but we are made to focus on Ed’s missions, reveling in how each of them is solved differently. The answer to the Big Q is revealed as a major twist in the end, and I have to say it’s one of the most unique turns I’ve seen to cap off a novel. I can’t say it’s the best twist ever, but I expected something else entirely—something that stays within the four walls of the story. I liked it, though. I think it made the impact of the message a hundredfold greater.
All technicalities aside, I want to say that the best thing in my reading experience with I am the Messenger is how the “messages” shot straight to my heart. It’s no news that apathy could rival oxygen in terms of its abundance in the air nowadays. We often fall victim to the “I have loads of problems of my own, why should I take care of his?” mentality that often shadows the “what’s in it for me?” question, but what if you’re a stranger’s only hope? You don’t need to be a superhero to save a life; a hope can be a simple smile, a genuine greeting, or a small conversation between passenger seats. I still believe in the power of small things because once upon a time in my life, I’ve been saved by them too.
This novel also reminded me that we shouldn’t be afraid to connect with other people. I know that trust is too precious a thing to invest in someone we don’t know well, but what we seldom realize is that we get a lot more when we build new relationships. Ed has realized this too. He repeatedly muses about how he gets nothing in exchange of all the good things he’s doing for other people, but he finds out in the end that he—in his own words—“the privileged one.” His dormant life compass functions well again after he touched other people’s lives.
The other message that struck a chord with me is that we can all be somebody…but for that to happen, each of us has to be nobody first. :)
This book made me laugh and cry. I think the very good things about I Am the Messenger eclipsed its flaws so I’m giving it five well-deserved stars.