March 07, 2013

Of Gods and Monsters (Review: The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks)

The Bunker Diary
The Bunker Diary
Kevin Brooks
Penguin 2013

Linus has been snatched from the street by a man he believed to be blind.  Clearly, he was tricked by the man’s helpless act, because he wakes to find himself in a sparsely furnished room – just a bed, a bedside cabinet, a blank notebook, a pen and a bible.  On exploration, he finds a five identical rooms, a basic kitchen and bathroom and a short corridor leading to an elevator.  The elevator goes up, it goes down, the lights go on and off.  Nothing else.  Until, a few days later, the elevator opens to reveal Jenny, a young girl.  Later still, it drops off a variety of drugged or drunk adults – hard man, Fred; fat Bird; snobby Anja and fragile, intelligent Russell.
Linus’s story is brought to us via the notebook he finds in his room.  He writes directly to the reader, whom he suspects might be his captor but who he is aware could be anyone from a prospective rescuer to no-one at all.  As he writes, his situation becomes increasingly hopeless and his tone changes from defiant to resigned to scared.  He’s clearly a principled young man but one who hasn't always made the best decisions. When we first meet him, he is living on the street but it soon becomes clear that he has run from a life of privilege, past grief and an erratic father who seems (at least in Linus’s unreliable narrative) to have completely lost the ability to connect with his son.  However, despite his status us teen runaway there is no drama about Linus.  He’s steady, solid and (for the most part) thinks things through carefully.  His interactions with the adults in the group show a real maturity – often far more than they themselves demonstrate – and his street smarts go a long way towards protecting himself and pre-teen Jenny.
The other characters are all extremely well realised.  Bird is corpulently selfish, drunken, arrogant, lecherous.  Anja, for her part, is easily recognisable as a self-obsessed woman, whose navel gazing translates into real unpleasantness during her time in the bunker.  There’s an interesting and unsettling undertone to her knowing semi-seduction of Bird. She’s arrogant enough to realise that even the merest suggestion of a liaison might provide her with a useful ally but equally disgusted when he appears to wish to act on her hints.  The two of them are real in the worse possible way.  Fred is perhaps even more interesting.  He’s certainly frightening, especially when it transpires that he is a junkie without a fix, but he shows oddly gentle moments and appears to be able to reign in what is surely a violent temper.  Yet, just when he seems OK, he’ll weave insidious threats into an innocuous conversation, never allowing Linus (or the reader) to relax in his presence. Finally, Russell for all his fragility, provides a voice of reason and knowledge. But even he is entirely fallible and never truly becomes the figure of authority that Linus is seeking in this nightmare.
The plot itself is eerily simple.  The six of them are watched by cameras, listened to by microphones and almost entirely left to their own devices. If they need food, they put a list in the elevator and it generally appears. However, try to escape or be in any way subversive and they are severely punished. The captivity and helplessness of their situation affects them all in different ways. While they at first attempt to work together, their somewhat disparate personalities (not to mention the odd helping hand by their mysterious kidnapper) eventually leads things to deteriorate to hellish levels. It’s not pretty but in the wee small hours (in which this story will haunt you) it doesn't seem all that unlikely.
As one might expect from Brooks, the writing here is harshly effective. The kidnapper is never seen but is, to his detainees, all seeing and all powerful.  They refer to him as Him, He, The Man Upstairs and the pattern of penance and punishment, along with the presence of a Bible in each room more than suggests an extended metaphor for a vengeful God. In fact, when their captor does contact them he prefixes his statements with “My Word:” which again has biblical resonance.  I’m not sure exactly what Brooks is trying to say here, but it’s not a positive comment on an omnipotent yet ineffable God, that’s for sure.  Not far into the book, Jenny realises that in order to get what they want they should say sorry, essentially ask for forgiveness, for anything they've done wrong and this seems to propagate the personification of the kidnapper as a God-like figure.  And this idea leads, to an extent, to inertia – they stop trying to escape because he has, in their minds, become all powerful. They are ants under the microscope of L'Enfant Terrible and the ideas this provokes are disturbing and frightening to the last page.
This isn't an easy read. In fact, it’s an incredibly bleak and a brutal examination of human nature - looking at the group in both active and reactive states. Yet, while it's all very grim, Kevin Brooks has a way of writing darkness simply, compellingly and with such honesty that it’s impossible to put his work down once you pick it up. The Bunker Diary is Brooks at his best and brutal worst and should be on the shelves of both avid readers and classrooms up and down the country.




This review was brought to you by Splendibird. The Bunker Diary is published in the UK today. Thanks to the publisher for providing us with this title to review.



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