Saturday, 22 March 2014

A Review: The Bunker Diary, Kevin Brooks

Unfortunately, the first review on this blog is for a book I cannot possibly recommend. If you are looking for suggestions on something to read, then this is not the review you're looking for. Instead, it's a hybrid of analysis and a warning. For one who does want to read the book, be aware that this review will contain some potential spoilers.

The basic premise of The Bunker Diary involves the kidnapping of 6 characters, who are placed in a blank, white-walled building with no way in or out. Every day, a lift delivers food, and their every movement observed by their unseen kidnapper. The novel is presented as a diary for the most part, although in places switches to brief script, and some poetry.

The warning I referred to is this: The Bunker Diary is simply too traumatic, harrowing and utterly bleak for anyone to enjoy reading. It charts nothing more than a descent into madness and depravity, offering no hope, redemption or consolation. The content is not at all enjoyable or pleasant for any reader, let alone for a book that is marketed as suitable for children, given its inclusion in the CILIP Carnegie shortlist for this year. Expect more on this particular matter over the next couple of days.

Undoubtedly, there are elements of this book that are good, if not great. The writing is of a high standard, and the voice of the narrator, Linus, comes across very strongly. Similarly, the presentation of his fellow prisoners is equally effective. Each of them are incredibly idiosyncratic without really being stereotyped, with character as strong as Linus's. For the first half of the novel, the plot is intriguing, and moves along at a good pace. Interactions between the characters is exceptionally natural and believable.

Where The Bunker Diary falls down is that it includes huge levels of traumatic, even sickening content (especially in the final third of the novel). While this is not unusual or even a fault in itself, other novels that include similar content generally have some kind of point to prove, debate to encourage, or event to highlight. As examples, Ruta Septys' Between Shades of Grey, which details the life of a victim of Stalin's horrific labour camps, or Jason Wallace's Out Of Shadows, which relates a story racism and intolerance in Zimbabwe both contain similarly violent content, but do so with the intent of raising awareness of those very real events. Brooks, on the other hand, offers no such agenda, making this tale at best pointless and at worst sadistic, serving only to present a harrowing tale of utter futility.

So, what is it all about then? This book was described to me as 'Atheist Nihilist.', and that does seem to be an accurate assessment. The ever-unnamed kidnapper, who observes the life of the prisoners, taking direct control over their lives, appears to occupy a position close to godliness. He supplies their quite literal 'daily bread' through the lift, the notes sent via the lift to him, demanding various food and commodities, are akin to prayers, and he responds only to a kind of reverence from the prisoners. Linus at one point refers to how the real nature of the kidnapper doesn't matter, only his perception, again a potentially allusion to his godlike nature.

This would seem to contradict the notion that it's an atheist nature behind this text. However, as, in the final parts of the novel (the most traumatic and impacting), this omnipotent being vanishes, his motives and nature remaining a mystery. The protagonists exist in abject terror of their kidnapper, only to have him cease to exist, leaving them literally in the dark, without hope or purpose. the god-character, if he ever existed, abandons the protagonists in the their microcosm, a godless setting. As such, it's no great leap to assume that there are distinct atheist undertones here.

The nihilism comes in slowly throughout the novel, with several layers leading to the impression of the ultimate futility and hopelessness of life. Apart from the completely bleak ending (if one can call it that), another element that adds to this feel is the characters themselves. Brooks proves he is willing to present some very real issues in this surreal tale, such as alcoholism, drugs, homosexuality and mental illness, but at the same time, these are merely character traits. They are not so much confronted as discarded in the face of the hopeless and futile plot, to the point at which they become insignificant. By the time the conclusion is reached, the nature, flaws and  issues present in the characters become largely irrelevant. Nothing and no one matters in the plot as it draws to a close.

Furthermore, there is no motive presented for the kidnapping. Every death becomes pointless, as does the imprisonment itself. There is no kind of resolution to the plot, no close, and no point. It simply leaves too many questions unanswered to be a satisfying conclusion, and unlike some other novels with similarly unresolved endings (Patrick Ness's More Than This springs to mind), The Bunker Diary is brutally clear in its ending. You know it's coming, and it is a foregone conclusion. Death, worthless and pointless, is the only end possible to this story.

There can be no denying that this novel prompted a very strong response on reading it, but unfortunately, that response was neither insightful nor enjoyable. It left me feeling physically sick at the sheer depravity of the last few entries into the Diary, and at points I had to actually leave the book for a while, too appalled to continue. Unless you want a similar experience, I really recommend avoiding this novel.

To conclude, I won't say don't read this book, but do not expect to a) enjoy it or b) take anything meaningful from it. It is unsatisfying, horrifying, appalling and traumatic. While aspects might be intriguing, and the real trauma doesn't set in until the final third, I wouldn't say it's worth reading at all. There are better books that deal with similar themes, and will leave you less shaken at the end. It's impossible to rate or score, as there is such a dissonance between the quality of the writing and the unpleasant content. I am almost considering reading more of Brooks' work, as his style and skill are obvious, but this particular novel is one of the few books that I genuinely regret reading. There is simply nothing to take from it but utter hopelessness.

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