Revisiting The Bunker Diary; or, the state of Children’s and Young Adult literature today

I’ve recently been revisiting The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks. Much of the prompt for this comes from a class I’ll be teaching in a couple of weeks about writing young adult fiction, though I admit a part of me was interested to see how it felt reading this complex, challenging book from a fresh perspective. When I first read it, I didn’t quite know how I felt about it; but I knew it had made me think. 

In the time between that review and this, I moved back into academia and my thoughts have become increasingly concerned with two distinct things: that is to say the representation of the female body, and the representation of power in children’s and young adult literature. I tend to lean towards the younger end of the market, in my reading, theory and creative work, and have recently had a project accepted to look at the representation of the preadolescent female body in children’s literature (but more of that anon). For now, it’s worthwhile wedding that idea of ‘power’ and ‘body’ with The Bunker Diary as I think there’s something interesting there – and something that reflects on the state of play in children’s and young adult literature today.

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The Bunker Diary : Kevin Brooks

The Bunker DiaryThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bunker Diary won the Carnegie this year, and, almost immediately, got a lot of less than favourable media coverage. Articles ranged from calling The Bunker Diary‘vile and dangerous’, through to other critics ‘refusing to review it’. Vulpes Libris have an excellent round up of articles on the subject and a thoughtful review here.

So what do you do about a book when you come to it in, perhaps, a shaded light of expectation?

You read the book. You should always read the book. You can never judge nor understand nor talk about nor work with a book when you’ve not read it and reflected upon that reading.

And so I have.

The Bunker Diary is the story of Linus who has been caught by an un-named figure, and placed into an underground bunker. He’s slowly but surely joined by a cast of characters who are then under the mercy of their captor who begins to play mind games with them of a vicious and increasingly dark nature.

It is not an easy book.

I do not like it, I think (and should people ‘like’ books that they read? Should every book be ‘likeable’? There’s a whole separate question). I think, rather, that I admire it. That’s an interesting dichotomy and one which reflects equally upon myself as reader as well as the book. No book is whole without being read, and when it is read, each reader gives it a slightly different story. And so when it comes to reading, it is vital to remember the part you play in the process. You’re in the story, whether you like it or not, and you have power over this text, and to not acknowledge that is to do both yourself and the book a disservice.

And this idea of reading, this idea of reading as power and control, is, I think, something which plays curious relevance to The Bunker Diary and is one which still leaves me a little bit unsure, a little bit wary, a little bit intrigued by this dark, bold book.

Brooks does not hold back. It’s quite rightly been described as a hybrid of Room and Lord of The Flies, but I think there’s something more with The Bunker Diary. It’s a book that feels like it’s been held tightly, a pigeon between hands for years, before being thrown into the world and let fly. There’s such a compression about the text, such a sharp, pained compression and brevity, that it’s almost about reading the white space around the words rather than the words themselves.

And yet, I think, I keep coming back to questioning myself on it, and as I said on Twitter, isn’t that the big thing about literature? Isn’t that what it’s “meant” to do? Isn’t it “meant” to make us ask questions about ourselves and what we’d do and who we are?

The Bunker Diary does this, and it does it without mercy. It’s hard to read, but it’s hard to put down. It’s not ‘nice’ but again – should they be? Should books always be positive and everything in the garden is rosy? Darkness isn’t something new in children’s literature, and it’s there for a reason. The real thing is how we react to that darkness and how we understand it and what we do about it, and how we acknowledge the presence of ourselves in the reading of said darkness.

I keep coming back to the reading of this book, rather than the book itself. I think, maybe, that’s because The Bunker Diary is good. Great, really, the stylistics of what Brooks does border on avant-garde at times, and I welcome that. I want that. I want books that push at the edge of what makes them books, and carve out their own space.

But what else do I want from books? Do I want happiness? Joy? Truth?

I don’t know. But what I know is that The Bunker Diary is making me think, perhaps more than any other book I’ve read this year, and that is something I welcome and admire and thank it for. And maybe, just maybe, that might be something that’s not unique to my reading experience. Maybe the lasting impact of The Bunker Diary and its tight darkness (and the brief, wonderful flashes of hope and warmth) will be to make its readers question who and what they are and what they will be.

And maybe, maybe, that’s what I want from young adult literature right there.

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