The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

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"Room" meets "Lord of the Flies"
"The Bunker Diary" is award-winning, young adult writer Kevin Brooks' pulse-pounding exploration of what happens when your worst nightmare comes true - and how will you survive? I can't believe I fell for it. It was still dark when I woke up this morning. As soon as my eyes opened I knew where I was. A low-ceilinged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows. No doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What's he going to do to me? What am I going to do? If I'm right, the lift will come down in five minutes. It did. Only this time it wasn't empty...'
( synopsis)

Earlier this week, Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary won the Carnegie Medal, an award held each year by CILIP. The Bunker Diary is told from the perspective of a character named Linus, a teenage boy who finds himself locked in what appears to be an underground bunker with no recollection of how he got there. The novels bleak storyline has sparked a debate, with the question of happy endings in teen fiction being at its centre.

Of course, as with any piece of literature, opinions are divided. There have been articles praising the challenging subject matter, such as this one featured in The Guardian. This article from The Telegraph, however, questions whether such a book should win the Carnegie Medal.

There have also been questions asked about the nature of the Carnegie Medal, with many people protesting against Brooks’ award because it is not a book for children. This question is briefly answered on the Carnegie Award website, the response being: ‘It is possible to recognise that a book is intended for children and young people in a number of ways i.e. through the publishers list they appear on, by the way they are marketed etc.’

As someone who works in a public library I have come into contact with parents who are unsure about the distinction between children’s fiction and young adult/teen fiction. I always suggest to them that it is not something that is always clear cut. Of course, most of the time the difference between a children’s book and a book aimed at teenagers is obvious, the fact they are usually in separate sections of the library being the main indicator. Most of the questions that I have had from parents have actually stemmed from the fact that their son or daughter is a mature reader for their age and therefore wishes to read books that deal with issues deemed unsuitable for them. In those cases I advise the parents to do their research and utilise the library and its staff to ensure their children are not being exposed to certain subjects too early.

I don’t think children/young people should be prohibited from reading books such as The Bunker Diary but I do agree with the fact that it is not suitable for people under a certain age. What I do disagree with, however, is the notion that fiction for young people should steer away from anything other than a happy ending. Fiction has always been revered for the way in which it represents reality, and reality does not guarantee a happy ending. Books are supposed to transport their readers, place them in situations they may never encounter and by doing so raise questions in the readers minds. How is fiction that neatly resolves everything all of the time meant to tease those questions and create debates amongst young people?

I finished The Bunker Diary in mere hours. That, for me, is the mark of a good book. I could not stop turning the pages. Brooks does not shy away from the terrifying bleakness of the situation Linus and the others find themselves in, he uses it as the basis for a story that explores the way the human psyche deals with threatening situations.

Whilst a lot has been made of the desperate situation the characters are in, what cannot be denied is the way in which it fuels the apprehension the reader feels. As Linus waits for the lift, so does the reader. As Anja grows more and more anxious, so does the reader. As the characters moods lift and then drop, so do the readers. The interiority of the plot amplifies the tense feeling of not knowing, creating a relationship between the characters and the reader that would not exist if 
Brooks had introduced scenes from outside the bunker.

The different characters Brooks uses highlights the way in which everyone, as an individual, will react in different ways to different situations. Within the group of six, readers are presented with a rebellious teenage boy, a young girl, a career woman, a drug addict, a business man and a man with a terminal illness. By placing such a variety of personalities in the small space of a bunker, Brooks invites the reader to think about the way in which each reacts to being held prisoner and in some cases asks questions about our own presumptions. Through its eclectic mix of characters the story also asks the reader to address how they might react if placed in the extreme situation of imprisonment.

As an English Literature graduate I picked up on hints of existentialism within the plot. At the beginning of the book Linus questions the nature of existence, wondering if he would exist if he didn’t write in the diary. Whilst this may just be me struggling to leave my student habits behind, I find it encouraging that these type of questions appear to have been raised in a book aimed at young people. The Telegraph article condemns the apparent rise of nihilism in teen fiction:
‘Today, teenagers are subjected to a growing barrage of nihilistic content, whether from films or television or online, and at their most vulnerable they can hook up almost overnight with strangers in suicide chatrooms. Given that all of this can go on behind the backs of parents, publishers should think carefully about the books they are putting out there – and the way in which they are packaged.

The link between books such as The Bunker Diary and ‘suicide chatrooms’ seems, in my eyes, a bit of a leap. It also insults the intelligence of the young people at whom the book is targeted. Surely the large majority of young people who may pick up The Bunker Diary will have the capacity to distance themselves from the plot and evaluate it as a piece of literature, not a way in which to think or act.

The Bunker Diary does not offer a happy ending and it does not resolve the terrifying idea of indefinite imprisonment for unknown reasons, by an unknown entity. What it does do, however, is present the reader with three dimensional characters and a story line that raises questions.

A quote from the Guardian article I mentioned earlier sums it up nicely:

‘It is an unrealistic and dangerous society which thinks that young people should never be disappointed and should not read any book which has "adult" themes because this is real life whether we like it or not.

No, The Bunker Diary, is not a children’s book. No, children under a certain age probably should not read it. However, I believe it is fully deserving of the Carnegie Medal. It is a thought-provoking, atmospheric, tension filled book that will stay with those who read it and will produce the kinds of conversations young people should be encouraged to take part in.

My Rating: 8.5/10


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17 July 2018 at 10:33 delete

Wow, this is a great book. With the unforeseen ending. I don't know why everyone is complaining... I thought the book was well written with a great plot.