An interesting discussion occurred in a book club I’m involved with as a result of our reading The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Without delving into the dangerous territory of spoilers (which might get me metaphorically and/or literally lynched) it’s one of those novels that specifically goes out of its way to keep readers in the dark on certain elements of the story, partly in order to help them identify with the narrator by placing them directly in his shoes (first-person narratives are great for this). What I found most interesting about this approach is how well received it was by the majority of the book club: such a technique could be seen by some as deliberately obfuscating, frustrating those who want more details and explanations.

bunker diary coverYet the opposite was true, in this instance.

Brooks’ choice to keep silent on certain story elements for both characters and readers has been the major point of discussion so far, and people seem to really enjoy it. Not only does it drive home one of the major themes of the story, it’s also helped to fuel a lot of discussion as to what we all think might be the answers to these questions the book leaves behind. Rather than generate frustration, it’s actually helped to provoke speculation.

I’d like to quickly discuss what I’m specifically referring to in a bit more detail, but I’ll slap a spoiler tag around this section to prevent anyone who wishes to avoid spoilers from seeing them.

SPOILERS ABOUND (IT’S IN H2 SO YOU CAN’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED)

SPOILERS

In The Bunker Diary six random people, ranging from homeless narrator Linus to a young girl and an eminent professor, are kidnapped by an unknown antagonist figure and held inside a small bunker. We never learn who did this, or why. This is partly because the story is told through the writings of our main character Linus, who’s keeping a diary of his time in the bunker (I wonder where Brooks got the title from). Linus has no idea what has happened to him or why, which means neither does the reader. This helps us further empathise with the characters, as we’re placed quite directly into their situation: outside knowledge of their circumstances would detract from this. What’s more, it really drives home the central, fairly nihilistic theme of The Bunker Diary: that horrible things can happen to undeserving people for absolutely no reason, and the universe doesn’t owe you an explanation for it. This absence of information led to some really interesting speculation by the book club. Who was the kidnapper really? Did they work alone, or did they have help? What motivated them to do what they did? Each of us seemed to have taken away a slightly different conclusion about this central unanswered mystery of the book.

In short, instead of creating confusion and anger this unanswered aspect of ‘The Bunker Diary’ created a welcome and lasting impression amongst an entire group of readers.

LESSONS FROM THE HORROR GENRE

Anyone familiar with horror fiction will no doubt be nodding their heads sagely at this point, since what we’ve just been discussing is a core tenet of the genre. As H.P. Lovecraft, the godfather of modern horror, puts it:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

To put it another way, a good horror writer knows that leaving things to the imagination of the reader can result in a far more potent and lasting impact on them than exhaustively laying out every detail. By letting a reader insert their own fears and theories into a scene, it will always hit harder than anything the author comes up with themselves.

This might seem like it’s only relevant to horror stories, but it’s important to remember that The Bunker Diary isn’t a horror story (at least by my estimations, which others might well disagree with). It nonetheless benefitted greatly from choosing not to reveal everything to readers. I’m left wondering what other stories, styles and genres might benefit from adopting this horror-like approach more often. Trusting your readers to be able to fill in the blanks might well allow for a more personal and lasting story.

The Bunker Diary is one of those books that won’t do it for everyone, of course. Fellow book club person Diana has already yelled at me enough for suggesting it (sorry not sorry, Di), and it’s certainly garnered more than a little condemnation for it’s nihilistic plot (yes, someone more or less exclaimed “won’t someone think of the children?!” about this book). But it remains a very stylistic, well-crafted and brutal tale, with everything from it’s narrative style to the way it reveals it’s plot holding my interest.

There’s a number of pretty valuable lessons to be learned from it, even if depressingly grim stories aren’t your thing. I’d seriously recommend checking The Bunker Diary out.

I suspect everyone wants something a little more cheery for next month’s book, though. This is what they get for letting me choose.