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The Bunker Diary

bunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks
Carolrhoda Lab/Penguin, March, 2015
Reviewed from a final copy

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.

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.


  1. Anne Bennett says

    This book was a bummer from start to finish. I don’t think books should all have golden linings but this one is so far from anything even remotely close to even a glimmer of hope, it was just simply depressing to read. The only good thing I can identify if that the author manipulated me into believing something good was going to happen in the end.

    • It’s been a while since I read this book, and yes it’s bleak, but I was okay with that. I found the relationship between Linus and the little girl as well as the acclaimed writer to be deeply human (and deeply humane). THAT was the redemptive aspect of the book for me.

      • Sarah Couri says

        Thanks, Ashley. I’m going to sit with that for a bit. 🙂

        • For the record, I would say that I tend to have a high investment in the benefits of discomfort for readers… the possibilities for challenging our thinking about what books “should” do for us & reflecting on our reading desires. Something I’ve said about my own books, which I think also applies to THE BUNKER DIARY, is that, while not obviously hopeful in themselves, they give readers an appetite for hope and possibility and for working toward a more humane society.

          • I agree completely. After the book won the Carnegie medal there were so many reviews that claimed that there was no point to it and that it was too nihilistic and disturbing for its target audience. I can understand why some people may not want to read it because of its dark nature, but I don’t think (as some of these reviewers do) that it detracts from it being a good book.

            As for the morals, I didn’t find an overarching one either but I saw it more as a string of themes that can apply to the real world. Playing God, social experiments, group dynamic, all of these are themes that I thought could be potentially discussed in regards to the book. Besides, even if the book doesn’t have an overarching moral or message in it, surely telling a good story with engaging events and characters can be enough sometimes?

  2. This was by far the most frustrating book I’ve read this year. It was so endlessly pointless. I hope someone who loved The Bunker Diaries will join this discussion and explain what they liked, because this was a real head-scratcher for me.

  3. Also: don’t you all think that this taps into a similar vein as the classic, THE GIRL IN THE BOX? I remember sobbing over that book, but also finding it very moving.

    I think the fact that THE BUNKER DIARY lingers uncomfortably is part of what marks its effectiveness. The difficulty is less the torture etc (we’ve seen this and more in THE MAZE RUNNER, HUNGER GAMES) but how it is framed, the limited options readers have for making the suffering “purposeful.”

  4. As Ashley Hope Perez pointed out, what worked for me as having this not be bleak was Linus and his default setting of kindness — this is not a book that turned him into someone he is not. (And one can debate whether its kindness, compassion, empathy — whatever it was, he exhibited it with most of the others in the bunker, as opposed to how some of the others interacted.) Because of that, I found this much less hopeless than NOTHING from a few years back, where everyone just treated each other as awful as they could.

    Also this reminded me a bit of HOUSE OF STAIRS.

  5. Linda Landi says

    Liz, I was thinking of bringing the book NOTHING in to this discussion as well. The Bunker Diary works, though the worldview it builds is bleak. I did not love this book, and I think I might back away slowly if someone gushed about *loving* it. However it is, IMO, a successful book and a very well-written one. I think it could be a kind of extended parable, with the guy upstairs as the deity figure. He is capricious, vengeful and seemingly all-powerful. Unfortunately he is also a complete sociopath. The people trying to figure him out in order to earn themselves a possible afterlife react in an assortment of ways. The kindness we see between characters is the only redemptive action on display, and even that ends with the most self-serving action imaginable – actually ingesting the other person. Nihilism? Oh yeah. But, man, does Brooks ever do a great job painting that picture for us.

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