Literary Criticism and Significance
I Am the Messenger was originally published in Australia, where it received the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book Award in 2003. When the novel was subsequently published in the United States in 2005, it was listed as a Michael L. Printz Honor Book.
Markus Zusak received several starred reviews for I Am the Messenger. Positive reviews focus mainly on Zusak’s successful development of a sympathetic character as he struggles to become a stronger person. School Library Journal calls the story a “tender and expansive novel,” and Teenreads.com says it “breaks your heart.” As a character, Ed is both powerful and vulnerable, and many readers would certainly see aspects of themselves in him.
Several critics comment positively on Zusak’s use of language in the novel. For example, Terry Miller Shannon of Teenreads.com writes, “Markus Zusak has a fine, whimsical way with words.” She goes on to cite several examples of strong alliteration in the book. Perhaps more importantly, Zusak uses short, powerful sentences. He often places short sentences or important fragments on their own lines. This gives his writing a quality that is both spare and poetic. It highlights the simplicity of Ed’s feelings and gives readers time to linger over them.
The ending of I Am the Messenger is a deus ex machina. Instead of answering the novel’s big question according to the rules of its world, Zusak brings in an all-powerful outside force. This choice attracts a fair amount of negative criticism. The Horn Book Magazine calls the ending “too clever and ultimately confusing,” whereas Kirkus Reviews says it is “unlikely, even gimmicky.” Once the reader finds out that a mysterious, godlike author created Ed’s challenges, those challenges lose interest in retrospect. There is no limit to how much the author can know about Ed, so it is not remarkable that he knew so much. He could have chosen to communicate with Ed through any means imaginable, so his choice of playing cards seems heavy-handed rather than clever.
As Kirkus Reviews notes, readers “who like to speculate about the nature of fiction” might like Zusak’s ending. Ed’s conversations with the unnamed author make interesting points about the lives of fictional characters, as do his experiences with Audrey at the end. These moments certainly provide food for thought about fiction and writing. However, because the rest of the book develops a different set of themes, some readers may feel that these final additions feel extraneous and undeveloped.