The Messenger starts with the archetypal story of an immigrant coming to America, then flips it on its head. Daria, the novel’s protagonist, isn’t seeking a better life; she’s a terrorist carrying a deadly plague she means to disperse throughout the country. Infected with a souped-up strain of smallpox, she has to interact with people to spread the disease, which forces her to explore, and eventually empathize with, the country she aims to destroy.
Although The Messenger is framed like a thriller, much of the book eschews the genre’s typical propulsive plot. Instead, it focuses on Daria’s evolution from hatred of America to ambivalence. Since the book begins with her stepping off a plane into New York, Stephen Miller can use the repercussions of her attack to frame the narrative as it progresses. There’s no question as to whether she will kill millions of people with the disease she carries, so the book has breathing room to discuss the broader implications of such an act. Daria starts the novel choosing to be a Typhoid Mary, and The Messenger shows us the physical and emotional ramifications of her choice.
As if to assuage fans of paperback thrillers, Miller also has a second narrative running through The Messenger that follows the attempts to track and stop Daria. Leading that attempt is bio-terror expert Sam Watterman, who fell out of favor with the federal government after 9/11. The sections with Watterman hit all the necessary plot points—and follow a standard race-against-time scenario—but never rise to the pathos of Daria’s story. It’s as if Miller is aware that she’s more interesting, but feels compelled to add conventions to keep readers hooked.
But instead of ratcheting up the tension, the scenes without Daria slow everything down. Aside from his age—late 50s—and his grumpy demeanor, Watterman is rendered vaguely, especially side by side with his quarry. There are brief discussions of the personal tragedies in his life, but they come across as checkpoints for providing depth.
The varying quality of the two narratives makes the book uneven, creating a fitful read instead of the fast-paced experience Miller aims for. At its best, though, The Messenger delves deep into how American imperialism, both cultural and political, has formed a generation of young people who live thousands of miles away. Miller deftly exposes The Great Satan’s glaring flaws, but he also finds room to show Daria, and readers, that great acts of kindness can happen anywhere. This creates a rich sense of ambiguity that suffuses the book—in Watterman’s sections as well, as he deals with the bureaucracy and shady morals of the American government.
That ambiguity is highlighted in the book’s last lines, where Miller asks what a victory against terrorism could truly look like. There are no heroes in The Messenger, and the villains are more complex and empathetic than most terrorists portrayed in American culture. Miller neither exculpates nor vilifies Daria, but instead presents a woman who has made a profound choice, then portrays how she decides for herself whether she’s made the right decision.