I want to say something about Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Disclosure: Penguin sent me a copy, not so that I would review it but after I’d commented on an extract (about the brain) and asked Kevin about it. He asked if I’d like a copy and of course I jumped at the chance.
Actually, I’d forgotten that I once reviewed one of his early novels, Candy, for The Guardian.
Warning: spoiler alert. I’ve tried as hard as possible not to say what happens in this book but it’s very difficult not to give at least a sense of it.
Another warning: I can’t do the book justice. It’s brilliantly written and this review feels gaspy and incoherent. But then it’s not meant to be a professional review.
It’s now a few weeks ago since I read Bunker Diary, because it’s taken me that long to work out what to say. I loved it, I knew that; hugely respected the writing, I knew that; but there’s also a level of raw brutality that took my breath away and forced me to remember and accept, in case I’d forgotten, that the world can be a shocking place. I like that in a book, always have done, but I’m not immune to it, not desensitised. And scenes and characters in this book still haunt me.
When you read a Kevin Brooks book, you don’t expect sugar and sweet. We are used to him telling it not necessarily as it is, but as it can or might be in extreme and terrible situations. There is no safety net. One of the things that makes him an extraordinarily powerful writer is that you don’t have the comfort of reminding yourself that “it will probably be all right in the end” because you know it might not be. It usually is but it might not be. And that’s the point. It’s like life. Life is usually all right in the end, at least if you focus on the positives in it, but it might not be.
The book tries to reflect a reality, not doing what most stories do in seeking to construct a story-neat reality, a reasonable, rounded reality that “feels” whole and works in a narrative way. This is a book which goes beyond the usual boundaries of story-telling, away from the 007 neatness of normal thrillers, away from the normal aim of writers to produce a “satisfying ending”. It seeks to say, “This is what happened, like it or not.” You can only get away with this lack of neatness and story convention if you are a very good writer indeed.
The main character, sixteen-year-old Linus, through whose first person voice the story is told, has run away from a wealthy home and been sleeping rough. He’s a decent, normal human placed in a very indecent, abnormal situation, with, eventually, five other people, none of whom is teenage, all of whom feel real. The six are imprisoned, presumably underground, for reasons which we want to know. And so does Linus. But we won’t until he does. It feels as if we are trapped below ground with them, because we know not a single thing more than Linus does. Everything that he wonders, we wonder, too. He is us. The others are everyone else.
It’s claustrophobic, the book. Horrifically so. Brooks plays with us just as the perpetrator plays with his prisoners. Writers take risks when they do that, because different readers have different pain thresholds.
So, it’s a brave book and you need to be a brave reader. It’s very scary, very very scary. You will either throw it across the room or not be able to put it down, or quite possibly both. Just keep reminding yourself when you’re reading it that it’s just a story; it’s made up; it didn’t happen.
But it might.