Monday, June 13, 2011

Some Books Sneak Up on You

Book Reviewed: I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

When I was half-way through Markus Zusak's young adult novel, I Am the Messenger, I still couldn't decide how I felt about the book.  I have a lot of faith in Zusak because he wrote a book I truly love, The Book Thief, and because his books have a kind of brave honesty to which I'm attracted.  So even while I entertained doubts about the plot and the writing, I still had faith that things would turn out okay in the end.  And of course, I was right. 

I should have known to trust Zusak.  Like his earlier books, the writing style is pretty choppy and a little too self-conscious at times.  The first-person narrative keeps it from becoming annoying, though.  Ed Kennedy, the narrator of Messenger, seems like the kind of guy who might actually talk in short, repetitive sentences.  Ed's a nineteen-year-old cab driver who admits he hasn't amounted to much.  His self-esteem is low, but he deals with life in a humorous and clear-eyed way that keeps him from becoming completely inert.  In the novel's opening pages, Ed stops a bank robber while out with his three best friends - Richie, Marv, and Audrey (with whom he's also in love).  After his heroic act, Ed begins getting ace cards in the mail, each one carrying three messages.  After he accomplishes the necessary acts that the messages tell him to do, he gets another card until he ends up with tasks that become increasingly personal.

The plot of this book keeps you going even when things seem implausible.  You're as eager to find out who's behind the cards as Ed is.  At least I was.  I liked being inside Ed's head, and I wanted things to turn out well for him.  As Ed becomes attached to the people he helps in his ordered acts, I began to like them as well.  That's why the book's final hundred pages make such an impact.  When he receives a card that asks him to help those closest to him, I had my gut in my throat in the whole time.  Oh, how I wanted everyone to be okay in the end!

This is one of those books that sticks with you after you finish it.  I enjoyed reading the book - and true to Zusak's awesome powers over me, I cried a few times - but I wasn't prepared for the way certain images and scenes came to mind while I laid in bed that night.  All of Zusak's books pack a surprising emotional punch, but he's not playing with emotions like a lot of young adult writers.  Rather, he sticks to the basic building blocks of a good story.  His principle characters are people for whom you want good things and his plots are complex enough to keep you occupied but simple enough for the reader to add his own shades of meaning.  By sticking to these simple concepts, Zusak leaves lots of room for the reader to become attached to certain moments in the book.  While I do think he has a tendency to overwrite, he is more than capable of adding a simple poetry to certain images - an old woman swinging her legs in a chair, a reserved young man gripping his steering wheel as he cries, one proud father talking to another.  I read Zusak because he writes big books in which the smallest things count the most.  That's not an easy thing to do.

I Am the Messenger is a book I expect to come to mind every once in a while.  It really sneaks up on you, even when you aren't sure what to think while you're reading it. 

Note:  This book's protagonist is a nineteen-year-old, which is quite a bit older than most young adult novel protagonists.  It made me think about all those arguments about whether or not The Book Thief deserved to be classified as adult literary fiction rather than being published as a book for teens.  I think Zusak's writing style fits the young adult "mold" (even though I don't like using those kinds of terms), but the ideas his books present work for all age groups.  I don't think it's wrong to classify him as young adult novelist, but I do worry that such a title makes it harder for adult readers to find his work.  Each book he's written has been better than the one before it, so if his writing keeps up at this exponential rate, he might finally get the wider audience he deserves.  One of the best things about reading all of Zusak's books is that you can literally watch him grow into a stronger and stronger writer over time.  I cannot wait for his next one!

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