Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks

The Bunker Diary, Carnegie, 2014, CILIP Carnegie, WinnerThe day that begins with Linus Weems assisting a blind man with a suitcase ends with him captive in a deserted, underground bunker. Completely sealed and empty of any other inhabitants but equipped for six, Linus knows he won't be alone for long. He searches the bunker for clues, escape routes and sharp objects and finds only surveillance cameras and microphones. He waits. Sure enough, the buttonless lift (the only way in or out) eventually delivers another victim the following day, a 9 year old girl called Jenny. The new arrivals roll in, each with a different story about how the unknown man overcame them; a muscly casual labourer, a sleek property saleswoman, a fat commuter and an ageing physicist. No connection, no pattern. The pieces are now all in play and the captor's games begin.

The captor, Him, as he is referred to in the novel, subjects his collection of prisoners to slow, deliberate torture and torment- remotely controlling the temperature, the lighting, the supply of food and even the pace of time. Like the Sims, but with real people. Linus writes a diary of his existence in the bunker, the routines, the boredom, the failed escape attempts and the cruel punishments for their attempts. He talks about the friction of six strangers living in captivity together, the nature of time and identity, the motivations and psychology of their captor and tormentor. Is he holding them for entertainment? Is it a game? A project? A power thing? The author has risked alienating their readers (and it's paid off) to demonstrate how isolated the characters are, and how frustrating it is to know so little.

The diary provides an intimate insight into the thoughts and feelings of Linus the narrator, his protective love for Jenny obvious throughout. He's incredibly real, and is so engaging as a character. He's a bit messed up, confused and angry, but all in all he's not too different from the average teen. The idea that he could quite easily have been any other given individual is unsettling and all things considered, he comes off incredibly well in the circumstances. I can't see how any reader would not be rooting for Linus- he's proven himself in the bunker which makes him a brilliant protagonist.

This book was remarkable in its ability to create unendurable tension and suspense. The reader sees only the bunker's side of events, the movements, motivations and environment of Him, the captor, remain unknown. Our guess is as good as anyone else's and it's incredibly frustrating to be denied access to such a crucial character. The way some of the prisoners cope with impossible circumstances and under such strain is admirable- The Bunker Diary shows that good people come in all guises and from all backgrounds, as do bad, weak or greedy people. It shows too that the human race is capable of great and horrific things. Torture, cruelty and abuse, yes. But also love and hope and comfort, even when it seems pretty desperate. It shows that in difficult circumstances and in impossible predicaments a person's true nature shows through. Being captive in the bunker forced Linus to become the person he'd always avoided and forced him to come to terms with his broken home life.

I was absolutely enthralled by this book. The prose is masterful and the plot impossible to even guess at- it would make an incredible film. It's fraught and harrowing, but there's a sense of camaraderie and community about it. There's defiance and solidarity and a resilience that's incredibly uplifting, despite the relentlessly grim plot and the unhappy ending. Linus never allows himself to be demeaned. He endures and he resists, the only actions that keep him going. The ending too is uniquely grim, but any other outcome would have felt like cheating. A worthy winner, congratulations Kevin Brooks.

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