“As soon as my eyes opened I knew where I was. A low-ceilinged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows. No doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What’s he going to do to me?”
Please note: There will be discussion of spoilers marked further down this post.
I was recommended this by many many lovely people, and got my hands on it the other day. I’ve been reading it little by little and just… wow. The Bunker Diary is really a book that stays with you after you’ve read it. I rarely go for books like this: psychological thrillers that you finish and feel like someone’s been messing with your head. But I’m very glad I gave this book a go, and it certainly induced somewhat of a book hangover after I finished it!
The atmosphere in a book like this is integral. When I was first told of this book, I thought it’d have to be something pretty special to pull of being in a bunker, seemingly alone. Who or what does the character interact with? How do you get plot, events, conflict driving the book forward? To be honest, in many ways I’m still not quite sure how Brooks carries it off.
Our narrator is Linus Weems, a sixteen-year-old runaway who’s been living rough on the streets of London. But one day he is kidnapped by a stranger and he wakes up in a bunker. Nobody else is there – but there are five empty rooms. And this story is his diary, recording everything that happens down in the bunker. He has a compelling voice; we are finding out everything with him, and he is clearly a teenager with strong characteristics. He treats the whole experience with far more of a level head than one might expect of someone that age. He doesn’t “keep his head when all about are losing theirs”, because it would be impossible to be in his situation and not have at least a few moments of crushing hopelessness, but he holds up very well given his horrific circumstances.
This book is hugely driven by relationships. Not long after Linus arrives, the other five rooms are filled. First (and, I think, most compellingly of all) we meet Jenny. She’s a little girl from Essex who’s also been kidnapped. She comes down in the lift and Linus takes responsibility for her. It’s a lovely relationship between the two of them, with Linus being something of an older brother/guardian to her. She’s obviously very confused and upset, but as the story progresses we meet this very brave little girl who does her best to stay positive and not let herself be bowed by things. In many ways, Linus and Jenny support each other, and their relationship is far stronger than that between any other characters that we meet in the novel. We have Anja, a rather stroppy woman who thinks most people are beneath her; Fred, a tough-looking heroin addict from the streets, like Linus; Bird, a snotty and generally nasty piece of work, who is your stereotypical London commuter figure; and Russell, a very old science philosopher.
All the characters are unique, and you get the hang of who is who very quickly. Most are developed effectively as characters by Brooks throughout the story, with the exception, for me, of Anja, who came across as rather two dimensional throughout. She seems a very vain, selfish, shallow character, which naturally lends itself to coming across a little more two-dimensional. Linus tells us she spends lots of time with Bird, insinuating that horrible people hang out with horrible people, but it means that we as readers gain much less insight into Anja as a character. Bird is excellently awful, with no consideration for anyone else and who needs taking down a few pegs. Linus is happy to oblige, and Linus’ reactions to Bird are very interesting as we see such opposite personalities clash. Fred seems easier to get along with for Linus, and Russell is a straight-talking old professor who automatically gains respect from some, and those who don’t are told to give that respect to him.
The fact that I could talk for hours about character on this blog rather than plot is very significant, and something that I definitely picked up on and thought about once I had finished the book. There are, of course, small events – like seeing if the lift has anything come down in it every day, or the attack dog that comes sprinting out one time. But the one character we know nothing about, and the one who intrigued me the most by the end of the book, is The Man Upstairs.
We know very little about The Man Upstairs. He kidnapped these six people and trapped them in the bunker, but we don’t know why or whether he’ll ever let them out again. The only interaction that those trapped down there have with him is putting the shopping list in the lift every day or so, and hoping that it magically materialises the following day. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, so nothing goes unnoticed by The Man Upstairs. The interesting aspect of this character is that, because we know so little of him, our understanding is based entirely on his few actions on the group, and the rest is Linus’ hypothesising. It’s this absence of solid character and motivation that really plays on your mind through the book. We have no motivation for The Man Upstairs to be doing what he is doing, so we just have to assume he’s doing it for the hell of it, or he’s a psychopath, or any number of other things. It’s the not knowing that plagues the reader with this character, and this adds fantastically to the insular atmosphere that pervades the story.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
The book leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and I can’t quite decide whether I love that or not. Part of me very much thinks “yes this is brilliant; we’re getting the unexpected; this story doesn’t play to our expectations and satisfy our wants as readers!”, but the other part of me wishes that we had learnt at least a teensy bit more. We never do find out who The Man Upstairs is. We never find out why they have been trapped there. We never find out what Linus’ relationship with his mother was like in full. It feels like a lot of teasers, with not very much reward at the end. And different styles suit different people, so some of you may be jumping for joy, some of you may be raging against the choices Brooks made with his ending. I’d personally have liked at least one thing knotted up, even if it was about Linus’ mother, but then again, if you are in Linus’ position, you may never find out the what, why and how. And I think it’s this realisation that really stays with you at the end of the book.
Some might argue that the ending was rushed, and that it just ended with very little fanfare or ceremony. I understand that perspective, but I also think the non-traditional climax was very much the point of the book. You have someone who has had all these terrible things happen to them, has met people who’ve died or gone insane or who are seriously ill, who doesn’t see any escape out of this bunker, and when something like the power goes, that could genuinely be it for them. It is a very realistic ending. No it doesn’t tick all the boxes, but I don’t think Brooks has set out to satisfy his reader. I think he’s there to do the total opposite.
Things I liked about this book were: The really well-crafted insular atmosphere, and the way the character relationships were developed.
Things I was less keen on were: Anja’s development compared to the others, and the ending. I still can’t decide if I love it or not.
The Bunker Diary: 7.5/10
If you liked this, you might like:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks