I don’t always realise that the best books are the best books until I’ve finished reading them. Throughout I thought Kevin Brooks’ The Bunker Diary was pretty decent and I was enjoying it. But it was after I finished it, and realised I was still thinking about it days later, that it hit me just how good it was.
So, what’s it about?
The plot of The Bunker Diary is pretty straight forward – a 16 year old homeless kid is kidnapped and wakes up in a bunker. Over the next few days he’s joined by 5 others, all from very different walks of life. This book is quite literally the diary he keeps while trapped down there.
Now, fair warning: There will be spoilers ahead so if you don’t want to know what happens, I’d stop reading now – and that includes you Sarah-Jane; I’m going to be lending you this book so just come back here after you’ve finished it!
I don’t like complicated books that get poetic or pretentious just to make the author sound intelligent. I like books that have something to say and they go ahead and say it and The Bunker Diary was exactly that but without being simple or dull. Though the plot is pretty basic, the themes and ideas expressed leave you with a lot of questions.
On a very superficial level the book follows Linus, the 16 year old homeless son of a millionaire cartoonist; Jenny, a bright 9 year old school girl; Fred, a heroin addict; Anya, a typical confident-to-the-point-of-arrogant business woman; Bird, another disgustingly arrogant, overweight, alcoholic business man; and Russel; and elderly scientist / philosopher with a brain tumor, as they struggle to adapt to life in the bunker after being kidnapped, try to understand why they’re there, attempt to escape, and face rewards and punishments.
To those interested purely in stories with a happy ending or where every question is answered, this book isn’t for you. The book ends with each character dead. No one knows why there were there. No one knows who the man who kidnapped them was. No one even knows how long they were down there for.
My first impression was that was not a very satisfying ending at all but then I realised that’s not really what the book was about at all.
What’s it really about then?
So many things. Sooooo many. I’m really not even sure where to start but I’ll try with it’s comment on society in general.
As the book progresses the bunker becomes a sort of micro-society. While some people went into the bunker feeling more entitled than others (Anya and Bird because on the outside they have money and status), once they were in there that didn’t mean anything anymore because the kidnapper treat them all in the same way. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the whole ‘all men were created equal’ thing.
However, as the plot develops natural advantages and disadvantages appear; Jenny is often given more food or served before the others because she’s the youngest. Similarly Anya starts to steal and hide food because she feels she deserves it more – but is this just a natural reaction to our idea of survival of the fittest?
And then religion comes into it too
Now I’m not religious so I like to think I can look at any critique or commentary on religion pretty objectively and this book made some pretty interesting points in a reasonably subtle way.
One of the key things that stood out to me was that none of the 6 were kidnapped in the same way, none of them saw their kidnapper in the same way and none of them even remembered him in the same way. Throughout the book, Linus in particular, starts to refer to him as ‘Him’ or ‘The Man Upstairs’. He capitalizes his references in the same way a theist would in reference to their God. Each of them ‘seeing’ God in a different way could be a commentary on how, although each different religion has a different set of teachings and beliefs, they all ultimately have the same rules to follow, or God to believe in or they’re all going to end up the same way regardless. Alternatively, it could be a metaphor for how people turn to or find religion in different ways or for different reasons but all end up believing in the same God.
There are also some examples of the kidnapper acting in a similar way to God in the Old Testament. Now I’m no Bible expert so I’m basing all these thoughts on the very limited knowledge I have but I’m pretty sure there’s a definite idea that God rewards those who follow his teachings and punish those who don’t. The kidnapper follows the same logic; although he never explicitly expresses his rules, he does reward positive behaviour such as saying please and thank you on a shopping list, or apologizing and asking forgiveness for bad behaviour. And he punishes them with loud sounds, extreme temperature changes, taking away food and necessities, for bad behaviour like trying to escape or breaking things.
Plus, like God – they never actually interact with him once they’re in the bunker, they’re just led to believe he’s there and watching them via cameras based on the consequences of their actions.
Of course, lets not forget that for all the parallels between the kidnapper and God, in reality he is still just a man. Is this undermining, even mocking, the whole concept of religion?
Another big theme is Time
Time is a complicated thing and I don’t want to get too deep into a philosophical argument about what is time and why do we measure it, how do we measure it, what does it all mean?! And so on…
But let’s be realistic for a minute and recognise that time, essentially, is a manmade concept – we decided to measure time, we decided what measurements to split it up into and we decided that that was necessary.
Of course, that just refers to the measurement of time, the passing of time is unavoidable. Out in the real world, the passing of time is pretty obvious – once a day it gets dark for a while, then light again. We see things aging, growing, dying and being born. Now, imagine being trapped in a bunker with no daylight and nothing natural except the people around you. All you have to measure time is one clock on the wall.
At first, Linus attempts to keep track of time; in his diary he writes the dates and times of things that happen. It’s almost like his way of maintaining some normality and staying in control. However, he starts to feel his days getting mixed up and decides to investigate. He comes up with his own way of measuring the time (slowly counting each second that passes) and he discovers that (he thinks) the kidnapper is changing time. He’s speeding up and slowing down the clock on the wall to alter their perception of time and confuse them.
Is this some kind of statement from the kidnapper about just how omnipotent he really is? Or is it just Linus being paranoid and feeling like he’s out of control of his own life? Or is it just a commentary on how time and our perception of it is so subjective?
A Quick Conclusion
So I realise this got pretty deep and pretty heavy very quickly but for a very short book there’s a lot to think about and I cannot recommend it enough.
The Bunker Diary is not a book about 6 kidnapped people; it’s a book about how we interpret our surroundings, how we make sense of them, how we define who we are, even how we derive meaning from life.