The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

Posted on: December 28, 2014

Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.

The Bunker Diary is 16-year-old Linus’ diary, written in an underground bunker where he has been trapped along with five strangers. None of them know why they are there or who has put them there, but before long each person will realise that they are trapped not just with strangers but with their own fears as well. In fact, they’re trapped with each others’ fears. Kevin Brooks’ 2014 Carnegie Medal winning YA novel is a claustrophobic, dark little thing, all teeth and tension and terror.

Six rooms, six people abducted and locked in with no way out and no contact with their abductor (whom the victims assume to be a man). Six lives, six personalities that may or may not get along, may or may not manage to cohabit the restricted space. Linus, as the first to be kidnapped, establishes that there are cameras watching his every move, cameras and microphones that allow his abductor to keep a constant watch on every room of the bunker, even, as the six victims find, the bathroom. There are no windows or doors and the only entrance to the bunker is via an elevator that won’t go up if anyone is in it.

After Linus arrives, Jenny, a nine-year-old girl who, after adjusting to her new reality, suggests they request some food by sending a note up in the elevator. In this way, they are able to stave off their hunger but all their other requests for communication are ignored. Soon, others arrive, each drugged and dumped in the elevator — a rough, “hard as nails” junkie, a management consultant in his late 30s, a spoilt, beautiful woman who is a real estate agent, and eventually an elderly, unwell physicist, who describes himself easily as “not only black and bent … but one-eyed to boot.”

Linus remains the only narrator though and for all purposes gives the reader no reason to doubt the truth of his diary entries. He doesn’t hold back with his thoughts: “I’m smart,” he explains, “It’s no big deal. I’m not bragging or anything. It’s just what I am. We’re all something. I’m smart (like Russell). Fred’s strong. Jenny’s kind. Anja’s beautiful. Bird’s … fat. We all have our qualities, and none of them are any better to worse than the others. They’re just different.” Linus is ultimately a decent, ‘good’ teenager who tries hard to hold things together. But what is decency against violence or starvation or fear? How great is the will to survive?

The six are uncertain how much time passes, and Linus realises that the single clock in the bunker is being slowed down and sped up. The lights go on at a certain point and off at another, which gives the impression of day and night but there’s no way to tell if these rhythms mimic the natural world or not. There is a “low humming sound deep in the walls,” the floors are electrified, and if any of the victims attempt to damage the cameras or microphones, they are gassed via the tiny air ducts.

“Nothing moves. Time is slow,” until one of them makes an attempt at some sort of escape and they are all punished for it. Their captor blasts jarring noise at them relentlessly, stops their food supply, gasses them into unconsciousness, sends down a violent, angry attack dog, torments them by sending them a box containing their various addictions — cigarettes, vodka, heroin, porn. He baits them, tests their limits and seems to know all their vices. He plays god with their lives, and they have no idea at all who he could be. It’s no spoiler to say that some of the six crack under the pressure and others are forced to act in ways they never thought possible. It’s a morbid, fearful ride to finding out just how they do.

The Bunker Diary is a disturbingly easy read for a book that is claustrophobic and paranoid in the way Harlan Ellison’s classic short story ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’ is. It has shades of John Fowles The Collector, more so than Stephen King’s Misery. Yet, The Bunker Diary is different from these novels in that no one in the novel — not the characters, not the reader — knows who “The Man Upstairs” is. This nameless, faceless person who has abducted, drugged and deposited each of these people in a sealed concrete bunker is a blank space. And yet he isn’t. How can he be, when his behaviour says so much about him: he’s a sadist, an egomaniac, a highly intelligent, calculating madman. Russell describes the man who drugged him as “charming … manipulative … persuasive … intelligent … endearingly bland. In hindsight, a classic psychopath.” This knowledge is both enough and frustratingly little. What the six really need to know is what the man wants, not who he is. As Linus writes in his notebook, “because, when you get right down to it, it’s us against him. The Man Upstairs. Mister Crazy. The Man With No Name. Call him what you like. Whoever He is, He holds all the cards. He’s got us right where He wants us. All we can do is try to make the most of what little we’ve got.” Of course, none of them really have anything at all.

When The Bunker Diary won the Carnegie Medal (the UK’s most prestigious award for children’s literature), there were many complaints about how it was depressing, frightening and not deserving of the award. A great many books for children and young adults are dark — The Witches, His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia’s The Last Battle, for example. The problem with The Bunker Diary isn’t that it’s dark or brutal or that it’s focused on what happens when the very worst of a personality is drawn out to the surface. The problem is that there is no redemption at all, for any of the characters in any way, and that’s when a story becomes exceedingly hard to swallow. Of course, that isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just something that will massively divide an audience. The Bunker Diary is a riveting read, but it’s definitely not a comfortable one.