Book Review: I Am the Messenger

Protect the diamonds. Survive the clubs. Dig deep through the spades. Feel the hearts. I am the messenger.

Ed Kennedy is a loser – a scruffy, 19-year-old cabdriver with no prospects and no motivation. He stinks at playing cards, is hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and is entirely devoted to his dog, the Doorman (who drinks coffee and “stinks a kind of stink that’s impossible to rid him of”). Ed’s life is one of dull routine and incompetence – until he singlehandedly foils a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in his mailbox. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. But as he makes his way through town – helping, healing, even hurting when necessary – there’s still one question that remains: Who is behind Ed’s mission?

Zusak’s The Book Thief is one my favorite novels, holding a special place on my shelf alongside heavyweights like The Road and Crime and Punishment. Naturally, then, I had high hopes for I Am the Messenger. Very high hopes.

Hopes which remained largely unrealized.

It pains me to say it, but it’s true: I Am the Messenger is nowhere near as good as The Book Thief. Not by a long shot. Almost everything I loved about that novel is absent from this one. Talk about disappointing.

Now c’mon, you say, that’s not entirely fair. Judge the book on its own merits. Well, I did. And it’s still not very impressive. Decent work, perhaps, but nothing truly great. Nothing I’d be tempted to visit again.

There are beautiful moments, moments where the Zusak I know and love really shows his stuff. I have no complaints about his prose, because it’s exquisite. Zusak is the kind of writer who writes things like,  “My voice trips forward, landing on the ground at their feet.” 

Or, “Crowds of questions stream through me like lines of people exiting a soccer ground or a concert. They push and shove and trip. Some make their way around. Some remain in their seats, waiting for their opportunity.”

Or, “An expression of surprise falls from her face, though she’s trying to keep it. It breaks off and she seems to catch it and fidget with it in her hands.” 

Ruddy marvelous, if you ask me. And he writes that way page after page after page.

Kennedy’s character is engaging, and he tells his story with a generous helping of dark and sarcastic humor. This I appreciated – but it didn’t stop me from wanting to reach through the pages and wring his neck. I’m all for introspection, but navel-gazing is something else entirely – something Kennedy does too often for his own good. There were times when I wanted to tell him, “Enough! I get it! Your life stinks. You stink. Your dog (literally) stinks. Your mother hates you, your father is dead, you have no prospects, your girl sleeps around, and you’re always getting into scrapes. Will you give it a rest already?”

Sheesh.

Which brings me to the “love story” part of this book. Quite frankly, I thought it was awful. Kennedy’s interest in Audrey is closer to lust than anything like real love, and I say that because of the way he obsesses over her body. And I do mean “obsess”. Listening to Kennedy, you’d think that lewdly ogling the female form is romantic. Maybe, in this Brave New World of ours, it is. Maybe sex really is synonymous with love. Maybe anyone who thinks otherwise is just a prude.

If so, long live the prudes.

The story itself is intriguing, but the ending is a letdown. It’s too neat, too cute. It’s as if Zusak wrote himself into a corner, panicked, and then suddenly decided to wrap everything up with a bow on top. Judging by other reviews I’ve read, some people thought the finale was quite “clever” and “twisty” – I’m just not one of them.

One final warning: I Am the Messenger is classified as YA fiction. Amazon.com recommends it for Grades 9 and up. And I cannot for the life of me understand why. Characters swear frequently and with gusto, and the amount of sexual content is considerable.

YA fiction? Seriously?

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: I Am the Messenger”

  1. I think my wise little sister would say, in that way only she can, after reading a poor book “jest trash”. I am afraid that is the highest quality of most “YA” fiction- out there, which is why we don’t read it.

  2. I completely agree! I was expecting far greater things because of the brilliance of the Book Thief, and though this definitely had glints of brilliance, it just fell short. Especially because of what felt like thoughtless crudity and profanity. That being said, I also love the way Zusak expresses simple, everyday expressions and emotions. And I loved the bit where Ed finally saw past his friend’s listless exterior to the tormented being beneath. Flippin’ brilliant. Made me wonder how often I see the obvious, but overlook the why.

    1. Agreed. I don’t mind swearing in certain cases – a war novel, for example – but the profanity in I Am the Messenger had was generally gratuitous, like it was there just for the sake of being there.

  3. I also enjoyed parts of this book very much but didn’t think it came together very well. I also thought it ran out of plot at the end. As if the author wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t think of a way to finish the book.

  4. Thanks for your review. I enjoyed The Book Thief as well–his descriptive powers are impressive. But your review cautions me against running out to buy this book.

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