Curriculum Vital

Diary of a kid who's far from wimpy 
The Bunker Diary, by Kevin Brooks

I'm never sure how to approach blind people walking alone in public. My first instinct is altruism, but then I think, 'Well, they've made it this far. I don't want to be patronising.' Of course, were I to see a blind person looking lost, say, or struggling with his or her shopping I would offer a helping hand. But then, that is just the reaction Linus has when he sees what appears to be a blind man having difficulty with a suitcase. The next thing Linus knows he is alone in an underground lair of sterile, ceaseless and surreal cruelty.

Though he is just 16 years old, Linus knows hardship. For the last few months he has lived on the streets of London, where he scrounges a living by begging, busking and, if he has to, stealing. His shrewd mind, tough exterior and kind heart will serve him well when he awakes in a hell many times greater than homelessness. 'I thought I was buried in a metal coffin,' he writes of the first moments in his new, subterranean world. Not quite a coffin, but not far off.

Linus describes his nightmare in the notebook kindly provided for him by his captor. The only other hint of culture in this deranged dungeon is a Bible in each of the six bedrooms, to match the six plates, six plastic glasses and six plastic mugs. 'Why six?' Linus asks. He'll soon find out. 'Why a Bible?' you might be wondering. That is just one of several intriguing philosophical strands to this engrossingly grim and existential thriller.

Kevin Brooks' The Bunker Diary is Lord of the Flies rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis. Or, if you prefer, it's Celebrity Big Brother run by the Manson family. So, cameras and microphones, yes, but numerous other devilish devices and sadistic surprises intended to disuade the captives from tampering with their prison or, worse, attempting the seemingly impossible — escape. It's a world so demonic as to make the bleakest gulag look like Club Med.

By this point you might be asking the same question Linus asks early on during his ordeal: '"What do you want? Why don't you show your bastard face, eh?"' To answer the second question first, the kidnapper may not be prone to dropping in, but he has a knack for piquing the reader's curiosity just when fear of him might be waning, rather like the eponymous whale in Moby Dick. As for the first question, yes, what would motivate a man to assemble a seemingly random sextet of Britons and imprison them in an elaborate homage to Hades? 'The Man' doesn't select his victims as producers select contestants for the aforementioned reality show: the latter is calculated to create conflict, whereas Linus' kidnapper appears to want to foster human solidarity, or at least cooperation. It does not begin well. 'Here we all are, stuck together in this hellish situation, desperate to find a way out, and we're behaving like strangers on a bus,' writes Linus early into the ordeal.

By presenting the story in diary form Brooks grants himself licence to use bullet point sentences that today's scatter-brained teenagers will appreciate. It's forgivable, given the circumstances, and in any case once he recovers from the initial shock Linus develops an impressive prose style that links his present misery to his past tribulations. Take, for example, this reflection on his increasing dishevelment:

I don't particularly mind looking like a mad junkie, but it doesn't help when I'm busking. People don't mind giving money to a sweet-looking homeless kid, but when they see a wild-haired loony on the street they tend to assume he's going to blow the cash on crack or heroin or something, and to them that's bad. That's wrong. W-R-O-N-G. It's bad enough begging for fags and booze, but drugs? Oh, no. I'm not giving my money to a drug addict.

Equally impressive is Brooks' ability to create a story that is deeply disturbing yet suitable for 15-year-olds. There is blood, violence, psychological torture and a nine-year-old girl, but Brooks never uses these ingredients gratuitously, even when the drama plumbs new depths of horror. 'I could hear teeth on the bone,' writes Linus in a particularly gruesome episode.

No, this is not a book for the squeamish, but nor is it a book for the simple minded. 'I've been here before,' Linus notes as things begin to unravel. Perhaps we all have, and perhaps if we are not careful our above-ground world might come to resemble this bleak and brilliant diary of the underworld.

By Ross (rgrainger@educationumbrella.com)


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