Around this time last year, I sat in the sun and finished The Bunker Diary. Once It was over, I continued to sit in the sun, staring out into the blue, blue sky, but I was no longer warm. It’d been on my to-read pile for a few weeks, but it got bumped up when my bestest bookseller said she needed to talk about it, and she never steers me wrong on matters of bookness. I couldn’t articulate how the book made me feel into coherent words at the time, so I never tried to review it. However, today this haunting, beautifully chilling book won the CILIP Carnegie Medal for Children’s Fiction – And deservedly so. After seeing Brooks’ impassioned acceptance speech on the live online stream (I didn’t get invited, oddly enough), I felt the urge to give it a go reviewing it… So let’s see how I do.
Linus wakes up in a concrete bunker. The last thing he remembers was being jumbled into the back of a van and knocked unconscious by a man he thought was blind. Linus may have spent his time living on the streets, but something tells him that this sudden change of accommodation is not in his favour. Time goes by, with Linus documenting his lonely existence in the six roomed bunker on a pad of paper left for him. The only way in or out of his concrete prison block is a single lift that opens every morning but is always empty, and Linus has absolutely no idea who took him, or why. Cameras watch him from the ceilings, and the lights seem to be on a timer… Is it some sort of experiment? Government research into the effects of isolation? One morning, the lift opens… Only this time it isn’t empty. Nine year old Jenny has also been kidnapped, and she’s not the only one – over the next few days, four more arrive in the lift, one for each room, of varying ages. As the six inmates of the Bunker try to piece together who took them, and why, their unseen kidnapper starts to play psychological games with them, sending down lifts with food, alcohol, water, slowing their judgement. Sometimes he knocks them out using a gas, before taking all the food back again. All of the kidnap victims are left constantly on edge, unsure of the next reward or punishment, with seemingly no cause for either, and with that uncertainty, comes frayed emotions and conflict. Can Linus, Jenny and the others devise a way out? Will they ever find out what their omniscient overseer wants from them? How long can you go without food, anyway?
Wow. So, The Bunker Diary… Where do I even start? I suppose, as always, I’ll talk about the book’s main characters first. Linus is a brilliantly bright, philosophical narrator, and through flashbacks, we’re shown the troubled home life that drove him from a rich, upper class family to living on the streets, to being sealed in the Bunker. His intelligence and his ability to rationally contemplate situations make his escape attempts compelling and well thought out and his failures so bitter and unrelenting. His philosophical insights into the mind of his captor, and the nature of life itself, hint at a highly intelligent, if rebellious intellect, and make him a character the reader can really root for and get on board with. Jenny is such a sweet, bright young girl, and it’s her that gives The Bunker Diary hope. Without her, the story would be (even more) brutal, but she provides the small slice of innocence and hope that Linus needs to keep up his escape attempts, and to distract him from the bickering, dark, falling apart of the older inmates. Fred, Anja and Bird serve to reflect the positivity of the younger characters, filled with their vices and negativity, they allow Brooks a chance to analyse the different ways people cope with hopelessness, and how quickly the minds of those in captivity can be broken down. Russell is fantastic, possibly my favourite character after Jenny, the oldest of the six, and an esteemed physicist. His age and life experience add a whole new layer of thoughts towards their predicament, and he helps to create an overall sense of balance between the despondency of the adults and the hopefulness of the younger characters.
Do you know when you balance on the back two legs of a chair? That feeling in your stomach, of uncertainty and unbalance, like at any second you could come crashing to the floor? That’s the best way I can describe The Bunker Diary – Each and every chapter is dripping with sinister intent, leaving the reader constantly off-balance, unsure of just where the torturous kidnapper will go next in the tormenting of his victims. The unpredictability of the inmates themselves adds a sense of dizzying uncertainty to the plot too, making for a book that demands your constant attention, and one that is never short of promises… Though many of them are snatched back at the last second. Brooks’ writing style is absolutely beautiful, minimalistic, yet somehow punchy and textured, and using the diary writing format, he can create a great sense of the boredom and frustration of the characters, and he can really nail the passage of time in a way that hammers home to the reader just what these characters are going through. He has a poetic use of words, a brilliant choice in formatting too, which helps to accentuate the overall bleak tone of The Bunker Diary – The mood creeps and crawls around every short sentence and sudden drop in the plot, and builds a sense of claustrophobia and terrible dread as the plot escalates towards its stomach churning conclusion. This is a powerfully effecting book, a triumph of Teenage Fiction, and proof that Teen readers don’t need to be shielded from the darker side of life.
It’s not for the faint of heart… But I defy you to not be moved by it.
P.S. Read more about Kevin’s win here.