Warning: spoiler alert down at the bottom, in which I give away something in regards the book’s ending.
Ed Kennedy is a young man in an unnamed town in Australia: he works for Vacant Taxis, rents a shack within walking distance of work–after driving all day, who’d want to drive more?–and he spends his free time playing cards with his friends and drinking coffee with his dog, Doorman, which is nearly as old as he. His father died a year ago, his mother calls only to yell at him for things he’s forgotten to do for her. Life seems aimless and pointless, though not entirely unhappy as the book opens–well, what’s a novel without drama? The book begins with Ed and two of his friends/co-workers face down on the floor of a bank as it’s being held up by an incompetent thief. As the thief attempts to start Marv’s recalcitrant car, Ed is inspired to hold him at gunpoint (the thief having dropped his revolver by the door). This attracts the notice of the police nearby issuing tickets, which in turn attracts the notice of the media for Ed’s selfless deed. Ed suffers the attention of the media in the hopes that he will soon be able to return to slacker anonymity: his fares, his dog, his card games…
This is not to be. Shortly after the reverse holdup, Ed gets an Ace of Diamonds with three addresses and times listed on it. No explanation. No name or other identifying information. Not even a hint about what Ed is supposed to do. The normal reaction would probably be to toss this away and forget about it, but Ed’s curiosity is piqued: he goes to the addresses at the times on the card to figure out what’s going on. One involves a man abusing his wife and child, one house has only a lonely and confused old woman, one has a girl running in her bare feet; what is Ed to do? He watches them for several days, pondering, and finally though simply watching them realizes what he wants to do: end the abuse, befriend the old woman, compliment the girl. And so he does: he scares the man at gunpoint (though does not shoot him), allows the old woman to believe he’s her husband come home (though never claims to be the husband) and suggest the girl run barefoot at her track meets so she can take the same joy in that workout as she does her early morning runs.
Three more Aces come, with equally perplexing yet ultimately rewarding tasks–twelve in all. As the book draws to a close, Ed wonders, as many of us would, who is doing this and whether they’ll reveal themselves to him. As he works through the tasks, he gradually climbs out of the belief that he’s a nothing loser, fated to simply drift through life with no goals or ambitions, and less purpose.
While I loved the book, some of the elements make me think I should include a parental advisory along with the recommendation. I Am the Messenger is a YA book in the same sense as The Book Thief: both protagonists are in their teens, true, but there are a few issues that will turn off kids who don’t like reading and parents who wish to protect their children from the ills of the world. For starters, the writing style is a bit more difficult than most of the teen books I’ve read recently–closer to free verse than prose. There is “mature content” in both books–while The Book Thief is set against Munich during World War II, I Am the Messenger has adult language and situations ranging from spouse abuse to robbery. Now, I would not hesitate to suggest it to kids who do love reading, but rather, I might suggest to certain parents that they read the book before giving it to their children…which, oddly enough, does work out to be a compliment for Zusak. There are a lot of books geared for tweens and teens which read like an Uncle Wiggly story. This isn’t one of them.
There is a twist ending, if that’s the correct term, in which Zusak inserts the ‘author’ (I’m assuming it’s Zusak himself, but he doesn’t specify) into the penultimate scene, in which Ed meets his creator. Meta-fiction, if you will. I liked it after about the third reading, but can understand how so many of the readers felt that Zuskas couldn’t figure out how to come up with a “proper” ending.
As for what to recommend next, I’m not quite sure, but would welcome suggestions. Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World might do for readers that liked the twist ending in which fiction and reality meet, though in that case, I’d consider it quite all right to skim the philosophy lessons–they get old fast. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books spend a great deal more time combining fictional and “real” characters,; though I’d recommend them, I’m not sure how readers who liked the more somber tone of Zusak’s novels would like Fforde’s rather fluffy comedy.