by Blythe Robbins
Better than a Mystery
At first glance, The Messenger by Markus Zusak (of The Book Thief fame) might appear to be a unique type of mystery novel. Ed Kennedy is a nineteen-year-old cabbie in Australia. Due to his self-proclaimed laziness, Ed suffers from a lack of inertia: Stuck in a dead-end job in a dead-end city, and hopelessly in love with his best friend, he has no goals or direction. He knows he’s capable of more, but that knowledge only creates awareness, not action.
That is, until he foils a bank robbery on impulse. Suddenly Ed is receiving aces from a deck of cards in the mail. Each Ace contains three names on it. The mystery surrounds not only the names themselves (and what Ed must do for each one), but also around who is sending the cards in the first place. As Ed delves into the lives of each person, he discovers that he has a unique role to play in each person’s life.
This is where the title, The Messenger comes into play. Ed must indeed deliver a message to each person in a different form. Not only does Ed have to figure out what each person needs, but he must deliver his message before he can move on to the next name. His messages are quite varied from beating up and threatening a rapist, to helping a priest fill his church, to showing kindness to a young mother in the form of an ice cream cone.
The mystery of why Ed specifically has been chosen to deliver these messages doesn’t get answered until the end of the book, but what he’s been chosen for does: He’s been chosen to care. As Ed moves through the aces (which are always mysteriously delivered to him), he gains more confidence in himself and his abilities, and the messages become more personal. Soon he is delivering messages to his mom, his best friends, and even to himself.
And here is where the story turns from being a true mystery novel. For a mystery novel is all about solving a case; and in this story, that would mean figuring out who is sending these cards to Ed. But as the story propels itself forward (and believe me, it’s a page turner), it becomes more a story about Ed’s self-discovery of his own life and who he is in it, rather than a blazing trail toward discovering the answer behind the mysterious cards.
As Ed’s perceptions of the world change through his own changing interactions with it (he is now, after all, making a difference in other people’s lives), the mystery of who is sending the cards is almost irrelevant to the storyline because Ed is learning his intended lessons no matter who is sending the cards. When we do discover who is behind the cards, the answer is rather odd. In fact, as the answer is revealed, there’s an odd sleight of hand–an almost Meta component in the revelation, as though the character is really the author of not just the cards but of the whole journey.
This revelation is a bit jarring for a moment, but it fades into the background because we realize that the revelation is irrelevant after all. It’s only allowed for a more concrete outlining of the story (and Ed’s moral): that anybody can make a difference in the world. What saves this story from being sickly sweet is the quick tempo of Zusak’s writing coupled with his laugh-out-loud humor. Zusak is definitely one of the best YA fiction writers out there, and The Messenger definitely shows Zusak at his best.
Blythe Robbins, a Californian living in New York City, is a geeky editor by day. At night, she can be found reading or writing YA fiction.