This book has quite a lot going for it. Zusac has a John Clarke knack for Australian idiom, and the dialogue is enjoyably (if perhaps occasionally effectively exaggerated) authentic (and I should mention that I’m not just talking about Steve Irwin, ‘Crikey’ stuff – though the “Strewth, mate, that’s a shocker,” sort of thing is there – but there’s plenty of swearing). The opening scene is a cracker (a genius for getting reluctant teens in if, as I happened to come across this book, you’re having to try to get a bunch of 14 year olds to read it), both language and humour. He can often turn a nice phrase too. The book has heart: Zusac really has a go at challenging the habitual, unthinking selfishness and emptiness of complacent lifestyles. There are constant episodes to entertain throughout, but these also build to a climax to address a central mystery driving you on. There are some deft scenes and observations along the way (one that comes to mind is the comfortably distant understanding portrayed between Ed and his brother).
…this book has a few buts too. In a way it’s a shame that I came to it at the wrong age: a weakness for me is probably a strength for younger readers. Yeah, that’s condescending, but I don’t know that it has to be taken that way. My point is that it *is* more juvenile to see problems as strikingly clearly as they are presented here. Everyone, it seems, has some single central unresolved issue, and once that’s addressed, everything is peachy. Now, sure, Zusac would be well aware that this is oversimplifying, and the novel deliberately does this so each story is, to steal an insightful term from an essay at the back of one edition, a parable. And there is truth in this: many a more layered novel (or individual) hides a simple lack of integrity behind a screen of Hamlet-like justifications, meditations, sophistications. However there is also truth in the generally older awareness that after the resolution, even the good resolution, there are a lot of days to come, and you’re rarely going to solve your (or other’s) problems, but perhaps can get better at dealing with the inevitability of future ones.
Moreover I wasn’t convinced by his treatment of a few things, such as violence, romance and ambition. Ed has the crap beaten out of him a couple of times, and the message is that this makes him purer and stronger – there’s even some borderline pleasure in it. This feels like ludicrous romanticism to me: I suspect someone who’d been jumped, as Ed is, a couple of times would be far more likely to be traumatised and fearful. Similarly it feels like readers are just supposed to go along with the Audrey solution, but I can’t see that the process here (like a couple of others of the solutions) really validates the wonderful transformation. Finally it could just be an excuse of someone merely writing unpaid reviews of someone who’s sold millions of books, but there are mixed messages about what makes someone valuable. Humble taxi-driving Ed may have just made a huge difference in the lives of several people, but he knows that if he stays in this suburb driving taxis and helping people, he’s still a failure. Interesting that an Australian book can have this more traditionally US, “Make something of yourself,” sensibility.
I should glance at the bit where the ‘author’ pops into the novel. A risky technique, but it can be done well. I enjoyed, for example, Jane Austen and David Lodge popping in for a line or two in Mansfield Park and How Far Can You Go, but Zusak goes a lot further than this in making the ‘author’ a central plot device – the solution to the mystery of just who the hell is putting Ed up to all this. I believe this ending has tended to polarise readers – I feel somewhere in the middle. I didn’t find it disappointing, but I can’t say I found it really satisfying either. There is a cleverness for this book, “I’m not the messenger. I am the message,” because it so clearly is targeting readers who might identify with some of these unmotivated characters to get on with it: Ed is a character, but even more he’s a moral, a model. And to TELL his readers this is upping the ante on them responding rather than merely being entertained. But it isn’t up there with the best of surprise finishes which,as John Regehr said in reviewing Iain Banks’ excellent Use Of Weapons,
Like all good surprise endings, it enhances the story and makes us rethink it, unlike the Hollywood-style surprise where one walks away feeling puzzled and cheated.
Unlike many others I won’t go as far as saying I felt ‘puzzled and cheated,’ but the surprise ending doesn’t really inform anything that’s come before: you don’t look back on all sorts of incidents and go, “Ahhh…,” – as you might have, say, in the 6th sense. To play the author card in one way is clever, but in another is just trying to bluff your way through a deus ex machina.