This post contains spoilers.
On 23 June the prestigious Carnegie Medal was awarded to Kevin Brooks for his bleaker than bleak story The Bunker Diary. It’s similar to Emma Donoghue’s bildungsroman Room, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2010 and which was widely read by the teens of my acquaintance. Throw in traces of the gameshow Big Brother, the films of Eli Roth and Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, and you’ve got some idea what the book’s like.
The Bunker Diary charts the slow descent into defeat of Linus, the 16-year-old runaway son of a wealthy but uninterested Z-list celebrity, who is kidnapped by a man feigning blindness and deposited in a dank underground bunker that’s lacking in both doors and windows and is only accessible by lift. When Linus wakes up in the bunker he is alone, but he is soon joined by a nine-year-old girl, a high-end estate agent, a heroin addict, a besuited City worker and a pop-science writer. Alone in their subterranean prison and watched over by the sadistic Man Upstairs, the group struggle to retain their humanity.
Thematically, the novel deals with hope and desolation, memory and the passage of time, and the resilience of the human spirit. It’s not an uplifiting read and it’s been the subject of some controversy.
Lorna Bradbury published a predictably histrionic and pearl clutching article in The Telegraph claiming among, other things, that it’s ‘difficult not to imagine [the novel’s unseen antagonist] masturbating as he surveys the nubile young bodies (including a girl of nine)’. This says much more about Ms Bradbury than it does the book. (The comments that append the piece are hilarious, by the way. They are exactly what the phrase ‘batshit crazy’ was coined for.) The Man Upstairs visits upon his captors serious psychological violence, but there does not appear to be a sexual element.
As I read Ms Bradbury’s words, my brain translated them, quite unprompted, into what she was really saying: kids are stupid; innocence must be preserved; kids are stupid; kids are stupid; kids are stupid.
But they are not. We do not at age 16, 18 or 21 suddenly come to understand the symbolic world. We do not, on the cusp of real adulthood, realise that society is imperfect. Teen readers do not need to be patronised. They know badness when they see it and they know that fiction is just that. Whole genres of fiction exist because we like to experience fear. A comment on the Guardian website, a mother says that her children, 12 and 15 were both horrified by the book. The 12-year-old self-censored; the 15-year-old was gripped, evidence that teens are capable of gauging their own responses.
If every book had a uniformly happy ending all fiction would suffer. Page after page of unambiguous, unrelenting glee lessens its own impact. If we know everything will definitely be ok, we struggle to become invested in stories. There is no anticipation in false jeopardy.
The Bunker Diary is emphatically not a happy book or an easy read, but this does not necessarily mean it is unsuitable for readers in their teenage years. Here’s Brooks quoted in The Guardian:
Teenagers are surrounded 24 hours a day by far worse stuff on the news. I’m not writing about this in a provocative, gratuitous, glamorising way – it’s all written about realistically and thoughtfully. And I disagree that it lacks redemption – yes it doesn’t have a happy ending, but within the story there is genuine kindness and love and protection, and if that is not a positive look at how humans can behave in a desperate situation, I don’t know what is.
Quite. Books that have been deemed too shocking for adolescent eyes are nothing new, though they frequently come installed with a happy ending that makes everything alright again. As Amanda Craig reminds us in The Independent:
Childhood is always thought of as a golden age, but children all over the world can and do suffer from bullying, loneliness, hunger, bereavement, betrayal, violence and terror. The reason why [the happy ending in a bleak novel] is particularly important has little to do with literacy, and everything to do with the way that it mirrors what children themselves all too often endure. Stories give suffering a voice, but where children are concerned, they also give hope.
This I cannot disagree with, but Craig concludes with a statement I can’t quite get on board with.
Salvation will come about, through magic or luck or your own efforts as a moral person who does not give up.
The awful truth is that some situations really are derelict of hope. Salvation isn’t always possible.
This is most certainly the case in The Bunker Diary. ‘If you’re reading this, then I’m probably dead’, says Linus on page 56. We’re far enough into the narrative to be able to gauge that the proceeding pages are not going to be pleasant, and with this one line we know it’s not going to get better, for Linus at least. It’s an early get-out-of-jail-free card. Stop reading now if you don’t like where this is going. But the ending is chillingly ambiguous.
It is ambiguous because there is the requesite glimmer of hope, if you look for it.
‘If you’re reading this, then I’m probably dead’. So much is contained in that one word. Probably. Linus’ diary has been found, but that does not mean that he’s definitely dead. At the end of the novel Linus appears to fade away. Is it into death, or merely unconsciousness? Like The Handmaid’s Tale – another thoroughly bleak novel widely read by teens – the fact that we are reading Linus’ words at all means his diary has been found, and perhaps that means his captor has faced justice.
These books have not been subject to the same criticism as The Bunker Diary because they lack the notability bestowed on the book by its medal winning status. Perhaps then criticisms arise because Brooks is simply too deft at his art. He is a powerful and accomplished writer. His prose is taught, honest and wildly evocative. The words of The Bunker Diary are somehow realer than those of Thirteen Reasons Why (which is also semi-epistolary) and thus more affecting. More heartbreaking. More terrifying.
Fiction is a therapist and the slip cover is a consulting room. We explore our feelings and our responses to challenging emotions within the safe space created by the word on the page. We can experience things vicariously that might harm us, we can learn empathy. When we hear of horror stories in news media, we can understand a little more clearly.
This worry about the emotions we might encounter in desolate fiction ignores a vital truth. The point of fiction is to make us feel things. It was ever thus. The preface to A Token for Children, published in around 1671 poses this question:
How art thou affected, poor Child, in the Reading of this Book? Have you shed ever a tear since you begun reading? Have you been by your self upon your knees; and begging that God would make you like these blessed Children? Or are you as you use to be, as careless & foolish and disobedient and wicked as ever?
A Token for Children must have been a terrifying read for 17th Century children. Written by the Puritan James Janeway as a tool of moral instruction they conceived to petrify small children in to Christian subservience by threatening them with eternal hellfire and dying before puberty. If it didn’t break your child’s spirit, it wasn’t working.
The genre of social realism came to prominence in the 1960s. It too was deemed shocking. In the 1960s we were outraged by violence in The Outsiders, in the seventies, teen sex and pregnancy in Forever and in the nineties drug use in Junk. And so on. What we deem shocking changes with our social mores and as our society becomes more liberal and perceived threats to order – that is, protection of the supremacy of the family and limited civil rights – erode, their replacements become more extreme. Abduction, sexual abuse, captivity; they’re just not as shocking as they used to be.
More recently dystopian fiction has seen a resurgence with books like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner gaining a huge fan base. The Bunker Room is a melding of these two genres. It has caught the zeitgeist, but its precedent has a long history.
Even now we use literature in the classroom that is full of rape, murder, incest, madness and debasement. The Duchess of Malfi, King Lear; Lord of the Flies, 1984, Of Mice and Men. The epitome of the sad ending must be Romeo and Juliet, a stalwart of the curriculum. One might argue that we are distanced from the horror in these texts by their language and contexts, but moving literature is moving regardless of context. I read Seamus Heaney’s ‘Mid Term Break’ as part of the GCSE and it affected me deeply. Or perhaps it is precisely because these texts are encountered in the classroom that we deem them safe to encounter. Is the classroom an extension of the safe space of the text? Must we have a responsible adult available to help us process a narrative? We encourage developing intellects to read these books outside of the classroom too, so that cannot be the case.
All this is a roundabout way of saying that despite its lack of uplifting conclusion the text still holds value. It is character driven and filled with musings that might provoke thought and discussion. It’s an exploration of the breakdown of society in microcosm. Morality. The passage of time. It can help us connect with our own feelings of imprisonment and hopelessness in the abstract and it can help us empathise with the same in other people.
It can only be up to young readers and their parents to decide what they do and do not read. Is The Bunker Diary shocking, Absolutely. Is is without literary merit? Absolutely not.