The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.
Review: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
By Libby Walden
The intensity of Kevin Brooks’ controversial The Bunker Diary is astounding as he unveils a dark, claustrophobic world seen through the eyes of one lone voice. This is a gripping novel that becomes something to endure, not necessarily enjoy, as you witness the nightmare-inducing situation of Brooks’ characters and discover what it means to survive in a hopeless situation. In a competition not unfamiliar to crowning the controversial, this unique novel stands a good chance in claiming the prize as it pushes the boundaries of the acceptable within children’s or YA literature.
This is the diary of the sixteen year-old runaway Linus Weems who finds himself inexplicably trapped in a disused nuclear bunker, kidnapped by an unknown man for an unknown purpose. As time passes he is joined by five other stolen souls that fill the six-cell cage as they are all forced into the role of observed lab-rats with no tangible means of escape.
Dealing with issues of control, torture, helplessness and survival the characters of The Bunker Diary are stripped bare when taken away from their social surroundings and statuses and placed within a controlled environment where primitive instinct is their only hope. Brooks lists Lord of the Flies and The Collector among his influences, detailing an interest in fictional attempts to understand human nature outside of a recognised world and The Bunker Diary plays with this effortlessly.
Brooks plays with the concepts of time, the passing and manipulation of it and life ticking away regardless of who is in command. Routine, time, and the clock are all important parts in the insular lives of the captors and yet they are not always true. Linus’ diary starts very structured with entries both dated and timed and yet when his illusion of reality collapses once the trick of the clock is discovered, his diary becomes more chaotic and life can no longer be quantified. This is an effective way of demonstrating just how far life in the bunker is isolated from a known and understood reality.
The unbelievable intensity of the novel is created by a claustrophobic narrative. The environment in which the events occur and the format in which those events are described are limited, thereby restricting audience understanding. None of the direct plot happens outside of the four walls of the bunker, we are only reminded of an outside world through character reflections or memories, and the only direct voice we ever hear is Linus’. The choice of diarised narrative is exceptional in creating an immediate connection to a lost boy who was looking for a purpose and instead found a predicament. Through Linus the audience is able to experience just how out of control his controlled environment becomes and the result is hard-hitting.
Brooks’ strength lies within his characters, particularly Linus’ narrative voice. Once all the victims are in place, there is very little to carry the plot except how each character behaves within and reacts to their situation, Doberman and ‘hE WHO KILLS aNOTHER SHALL BE fREe’ note aside. The diversity of characters creates another layer of deep-seated threat illustrating, quite clearly, that no-one is safe as the kidnapper doesn’t appear to have a ‘type’. The reactions of Linus, Jenny, Russell, Anja, Bird and Fred highlight a cross-section of society and the interplay between them, despite the group still separating themselves within the bunker, does carry the story forward.
Him, the kidnapper and orchestrator of the novel’s events, is an ethereal and God-like character, significant in his physical absence within the story. His divinity is emphasised by the only physical position we can associate with him, that of upstairs (above ground and therefore above his captives looking down via hidden cameras) as well as the capitalised moniker Linus gives him, a method identical to cultural references of the divine. How much of the inclusion of Him is a comment on the power of an author, puppeteering his characters within a story, is left to the audience to decide but it is not a parallel that can go unnoticed in a novel that ultimately demands audience discussion. The Man Upstairs is also an everyman, all descriptions of him by his captives are fairly non-descript meaning that he could be absolutely anyone, and yet his influence and power is all-encompassing. His motives are always hidden which adds to the suspense and ‘on edge’ feeling throughout and because the audience is left without any understanding to why the events they have witnessed occurred. Brooks himself is also apparently unaware of who He is or why the events within The Bunker Diary occur, stating that he completely shut off that part from the writing process as a way of retaining the novel’s mysterious integrity, that every reader is free to interpret and create their own reason or understanding as a way to cope with the inexplicable.
I really admire what Brooks is doing with this novel and I think he is incredibly successful in creating a controversial and unsettling story about the power of the human survival instinct. It is has the chilling quality that is key to a successful psychological thriller and makes it unputdownable, whether you actually like the novel or not. It is explicit in its violence and psychological effects and yet it was the lack of reason or answers is what I found the most unnerving with the unresolved ending being particularly harrowing and unsatisfying to a reader clamouring for understanding. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder how many words the blank pages at the end of The Bunker Diary are worth.
Things to consider:
- Suicide, murder, drug addiction, lust, cannibalism, torture – these aren’t subjects found in children’s fiction and yet here they are, presented all together in one short novel. Can we make allowances for the inclusion of these given the ‘arena’ in which they are discussed?
- The passing of time and the falsehood of the clock.
- Is the anonymity of the kidnapper just scare-mongering? What other purpose does it serve?