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The Bunker Diary
So way back a few weeks ago, Karyn mentioned that she found Tightrope Walkers too dark and oppressive to really sit with. I immediately began to wonder, what did I miss? Why didn’t the darkness affect me? Was I fooled by the book, to find hints of hope throughout, and find moments of compelling beauty in the darkness?
I’m pretty sure I found the book that answers my question. Did I miss too much? Nah, I’m good. This is a dark book. This is a book that pushes and prods and then slaps you around. It’s oppressive, it’s unrelenting, it’s brutal, and then it ends in despair. What I’m saying is, Tightrope Walkers was a walk on a riverbank in the springtime with birds chirping and woodland creatures frolicking, and this is…sure not.
And it’s the not-ness that is giving me pause here. Dark and gloom and horror at the meaninglessness of things is not generally my thing, and so maybe I’m a terrible judge of this book? Afterall, it has three stars, and it won the Carnegie Medal, so our UK counterparts saw a lot of good here among the torture and the pain and the essential nothingness of it all.
I mean, there are real strengths here. The setup, for instance, is intense, efficient, and gripping. Initially, Linus’s situation is both horrifying and intriguing — that’s a hard mix to maintain, but it’s really effective at keeping readers going. Actually, I think what worked for me at the start was the (false) sense of hope mixed in with all the drably horrifying details — Oh, here’s a new person; maybe they will all figure this out together! Brooks is very canny about both showing his cards (this is random. There is no explanation. 6 rooms? Just keep wondering, people.) but also allowing the reader to cling to hopes (a new character! The lights are so regular! There is electricity in this place! Surely there’s at least an explanation in store!). This is a delicious kind of tension, and for a while I actually thought this would be a book I loved.
I think it’s got a tense and taut plot overall — there are short chapters, a lot of breaks, and quite a bit of white space in the book. However, it didn’t feel all that fast to me. See again: unrelenting bleakness. It was work to get through, and it didn’t always feel like satisfying or worthwhile work. This is where it gets quite subjective, though — does an award winner have to feel nice? And that’s not even getting into the “what’s nice for one” conversation. (And, yes, google tells me there’s a lot of debate about this! #notshocked)
There are a couple of issues that might take all this ponderous debate off the table, anyway. Characterization is there to serve a purpose; everyone on the page is understandable in their way, but there’s no mistaking that they’re all there to both move the plot along and advance the big ideas of the novel. They’re sort of theme-shaped people. Or maybe theme-stunted people.
The Big Ideas of the book, too, didn’t quite grab me on first read. If everything boils down to meaning nothing, there’s not a lot of discussion to be had. It is possible that there’s a more subtle argument going on, but I wasn’t able to build much more meaning than that from the text; small details never really coalesced into something bigger. Coupled with the unrelenting misery (poison and dobermans and pepper spray, oh my), I feel a little stuck.
All of which is to say: maybe once it sits, or maybe if i manage to revisit it, I’ll change my mind. There could be more nuance hidden in the text, missed by poor Linus (and by me). But calling it here and now, for this post, I don’t think this will take a medal in January.
And then I look at the Carnegie medal, and I wonder again.
Filed under: Fiction
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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