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. Read the rest of this entry