It opens in the middle of a bank robbery. And a pretty funny one at that, to tell you the truth. 19-year-old cab driver Ed Kennedy didn’t ask to be a hero, nor did he even intend to be; he simply rose to the occasion which circumstances created. Now Ed is facing something he didn’t expect. He is ordered to deliver “messages”, both kind and terrible, to strangers all around his city. He receives his assignments anonymously by mail, written on playing cards. He doesn’t know who sends them. All he knows is that he is now the Messenger. His mission is to make other people’s lives just a little bit better — and in the process he discovers how to make something of his own.
I picked up this book entirely because Markus Zusak wrote The Book Thief, which you may or may not have heard of but need to read regardless. And that book made it onto my 100 Great Novels list, so you know how much I love it. I Am The Messenger is an earlier novel by the author and it shines just as brightly as the later one, though in a different way.
The setting — a contemporary, unnamed Australian city — is possibly the least developed aspect of the novel. Even the name “Australia” is left unsaid and you can only pick it up from the vernacular dialogue (and that Christmas happens during the summer). No clear picture or impression of the environment is left in the mind. But even this lack of a solid setting isn’t a detriment; it’s indicative of Ed’s fluid and mobile job as a cab driver as well as of his various missions all over the city.
In contrast to the fluidity of setting is the careful structuring of the plot. Ed gets four aces in the mail, one of each suit, and each card holds three messages. There’s a sense of rising anticipation towards the completion of every set of tasks. What will the next card have written on it? How will Ed be challenged now? Who is he going to meet?
The last of these questions constantly proves to have the most interesting answers. Ed’s deliveries take him to people from all walks of life and ages, of all backgrounds and situations. Yet each of them is fairly memorable even when what Ed does is small and simple, like buying a young mother an ice cream cone. And of course the most important character of all — Ed himself — is also the easiest to like. This isn’t just because he’s the protagonist; he narrates his story honestly and vulnerably when he has every right to be more bitter and cynical about the way his life is going. Instead of complaining, he shares his dreams. The reader ends up seeing the story in sympathy with his perspective and not just through it.
This is naturally a result of the novel’s best aspect: the writing. Too little attention is paid by most readers to prose these days; ask someone what they liked or didn’t about a book and they’ll usually start telling you about the plot. If they ever get around to talking about the prose, it will probably come last. But it stands to reason that all written fiction stands or falls by the quality of its writing. It’s made up of writing entirely, after all. And Markus Zusak is a master of prose. I Am The Messenger tends to be more understated than not. Take this passage for example, as Ed finds the home of an early assignment:
The only person there was an old woman who has no curtains on her windows. She was in there on her own, making her dinner and sitting there eating, and drinking tea. I think she ate a salad and some soup.
She ate that, too.
You see how the sentences are constructed in simple terms with simple words and phrases, without a lot of baroque styling. Yet he manages to find the perfect metaphor in just a few well-chosen words, communicating everything without being obvious. This is Zusak’s greatest strength as an author. And I say that even though this novel is written in the present tense, which I largely dislike in fiction!
I Am The Messenger is a fantastic read. I found something in it wonderfully illuminating too: that Ed’s “messages” are not, on the surface, anything of the kind. He does not write people notes or leave them encouraging cards. He does things for them, performing acts of kindness and love — instinctively, too, without being told that this is what’s intended. We call such people “angels of mercy”. But if you’ve ever read the Bible, you know that angels are not often sent simply to perform great acts. The very word “angel” means “messenger”. And usually their messages are full of good news. Ed becomes the kind of messenger whose good news is not contained in words but in actions. In love. So if you decide to read this book and make it all the way to an ending which many have described as odd or strange or even incomprehensible…just try seeing him as an angel. It might make you wonder just who his message is for.