Oh boy have I picked a doozy to review this time.
In fact, I almost didn’t review this at all. It’s a highly controversial read, and though it won the Carnegie Medal in 2014 it has large group of opponents within the literary community. This book assaults the idea of what young adult literature is, because the themes involved and the actions described are so undeniably adult in nature.
At the end of the day, I’m not enough of an authority to say whether or not this should be read by children or teenagers. However, if you are an adult, take a look at what I have to say. Maybe you’ll want to read it for yourself.
The (Spoiler-Free) Summary
Linus Weems is the teenage son of a moderately famous cartoonist who has in recent months run away to live on the streets of London. He is kidnapped by someone posing as a blind man and forced to live in an underground bunker, where cameras and microphones monitor every square inch and six of everything indicate that he will soon no longer be alone in his captivity.
Sure enough, five more people arrive over the next week: a nine-year-old girl named Jenny; a twentysomething woman named Anja; a giant-like drug addict named Fred; a small, balding businessman called Bird; and, lastly, an elderly man named Russell whose books Linus has enjoyed. They request food and other items from their mysterious captor by sending lists of requests up in the lift each night, and he sends down the things he deems reasonable the next day.
However, things get tricky as the group attempts to carry out escape plans or simply irritate their captor. Various means of torture, from starvation to chemical warfare, plague them as they fight for their lives.
The story is written in second person as a series of diary entries Linus records in a notebook provided by the “man upstairs.” As time goes on, the characters become more and more desperate but less and less empowered. Will they find a way to escape? Will they be rescued? Or will they all die in a strange bunker somewhere?
WARNING: SO MANY SPOILERS BELOW. Please skip to my rating and recommendation if you have not read this book. Reading the spoilers for some stories is fine, but for this particular story, it will affect the way you read the entire book, and not in a good way. Please, please skip ahead.
The Good Stuff
Okay, let’s just go ahead and get out of the way a brief discussion about the ending of this book. Obviously I hate that everyone died. Obviously I hate that Linus ate Jenny. Obviously I’m really, really mad and disgusted and astonished. But do I think that this ending is bad? No.
Actually, as far as quality is concerned, it’s actually quite a well-done ending. The writing gets less and less coherent as Linus unravels and loses himself, and we finally see the true struggle between Linus the child who never grew up (apologizing and imagining his mother) and Linus the street-hardened vagrant (cursing the man upstairs and trying to be objective about needing sustenance).
The tension toward the end is fantastic as well. Of course there’s an element of shock involved. As I was reading, I kept glancing at how little of the story there was left and thinking “wow, there’s not much time left for them to be rescued.” And each time a character died, I would think, “oh no, it’s going to be Linus all alone again by the time they find him!” So obviously I was surprised and appalled when he died as well. At least, that is the implication, though there seems to be a fringe group that likes to believe he was rescued and therefore quit writing.
Obviously, there are a lot of unanswered questions in this book, but I would actually count that as a good thing.
For example, we have no idea who the man upstairs was. We don’t know what happened to him. We don’t know if they were, in fact, being held in Essex somewhere. We don’t know if the rest of the original bunker held dozens of more pods like theirs (another theory floating around Internet-land). We have no idea what Bird’s journal entries were about. We don’t know if they were ever found, or if they were written off as cold cases to be filed away forever.
But here’s the thing, guys: real life doesn’t have all the answers. Real life leaves us shocked and dismayed without knowing what to do. Real life throws curveballs at us that leave us embittered against everything that happened leading up to it, no matter how rich it was. That’s what this book does, too, and that’s why I ultimately think it’s a good choice for teenagers. It stands in contrast to all of the “everything will be alright in the end” and “bad things happened but I feel okay about it now” fiction floating around out there, and that’s a good thing because those sentiments don’t reflect most of what real life feels like when bad things happen.
The Bad Stuff
Again, this book is super controversial for its adult content. However, I think that the problems plaguing these characters make the story particularly interesting. Let’s break it down a bit:
-Linus: a bit naive, but ultimately smart and kind; spent time on the streets and saw a lot of drugs and violence.
-Jenny: an innocent character.
-Fred: heroin addict; violent; foul-mouthed.
-Bird: secretive; possible murderer; possible rapist; possibly deranged.
-Anja: selfish; spoiled; helpless.
-Russell: the ultimate minority (black, gay, and elderly); intellectual; has little to no hope.
As far as characters go, this really isn’t a particularly offensive cast. At least, it’s not any worse than what teenagers would see on any given television network, so let’s set inappropriate characters aside, because I don’t think they’re inherently bad.
I think that I’m plagued by an inability to accurately assess whether or not the tortuous aspects are too graphic and intense for teenagers because I’m not a teenager. I read things like Gillian Flynn and Stephen King, and so the events of The Bunker Diary, while disturbing, did not flip my world upside down in terms of being new exposure. Were they shocking? Yes. Personally offensive? No.
That said, I think that I could have done with a little less of the nostalgia Linus was feeling for his mom, especially all the nonsense about the animals. I understand that it is important to illustrate that he was devolving a bit into a child, but I think this would have been an okay time to break the “show, don’t tell” rule to spare the reader a bit. Though perhaps I’m missing something really insightful. Who knows.
If you’re thinking about this for your teenager or preteen, I would personally say read it alongside them, but you could pre-screen if you wanted. If you’re an adult, read it. It will rock you, but it will be worth it.
4.5 out of 5 stars!
Yes, this book is shocking and mature, but it’s a valuable look into the idea that not everything in life is answered perfectly and wrapped up in a bow after it happens, and the character work and suspense building are superb.
Discussion Questions: (Spoiler-free)
- Do you think this book should be a young adult novel? Or should it be listed as adult? Horror? Suspense/thriller? Crime? How would you classify this book?
- If you were reading this book alongside a teenager or preteen, what kinds of discussions would you have with them? Or, if you would not let a preteen or teenager read this, how would you explain your reasoning to them?
- What do you think is the worst thing that happened in this book from a moral perspective?
- What does this book say about the concept of original sin? Is all of the terrible stuff that happened in the bunker excusable because someone first put them in that situation?
- Do you think Linus was more of a child or an adult? Why? Does this affect your idea of who should be allowed to read this book? If so, how? If not, why not?
If you’re going to comment with answers to any of these questions, be aware of spoilers and warn accordingly, please.