In defence of unhappy endings

Published on: 30 June 2014 Author: Saoirse Milotte

With the argument over what subjects can and can't be discussed in children's and teen books raging in the media once again, the wonderful Saoirse Milotte discusses the 'sick lit' debate, taboos and why unhappy endings aren't all that bad.

The Bunker Diary

On Monday the CILIP Carnegie Medal was awarded to Kevin Brook's The Bunker Diary, a dark and compelling story about a young boy held captive in an underground bunker with five strangers. Since then the backlash, most notably from The Telegraph and The Independent, has been astounding and calls to mind the controversy surrounding Philip Roth winning the Booker Prize in 2011. In this case however it is not the talent of the writer that is in question, but rather the subject matter of the book.

I was asked to review this book back in April 2013 and I can confess I finished it in two sittings. When I got to the last page I gasped loudly enough to rouse early morning London commuters from their funk to check that I was alright. Unfortunately I had been left speechless at the time and could only manage a stuttered reply to the tune of 'the ending...I can't believe...' at which point they all returned to their iPods and newspapers.

Since regaining the power of speech, however, I have not stopped talking about this book and whenever anyone asks me if I have read anything memorable this is the one I tell them about.

The book was passed around every person in my office and each one returned it, slightly ashen faced, shaking their heads in disbelief, telling the next person in line that they 'just had to read it to understand'. We still talk about it.

Why the controversy?

So if this book is so gripping why the controversy? Laura Bradbury, in her article in The Telegraph, claimed:

'Here we have attempted rape, suicide and death by various means, all of it presided over by our anonymous captor, the "dirty old man" upstairs who it's difficult not to imagine masturbating as he surveys the nubile young bodies (including a girl of nine).'

I have to say, the idea of a dirty old man masturbating never even occurred to me, or any of the many people I know who have read this book. It is this kind of over exaggeration and general hysterics that have created an undeservedly seedy reputation for this novel. Yes it deals with torture, murder and suicide, but it also demonstrates the characters' compassion, camaraderie and selflessness - even in a horrific situation.

There are many great novels that make for uncomfortable reading without resulting in negative press and warnings against reading it. The Kite Runner made me so upset I had to remove it from the house after I had finished it - even seeing the spine on my bookshelf made me want to cry. The Inheritance of Loss made me feel like nothing good was going to happen ever again - and that won the Man Booker Prize! And what about The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas? It is difficult to say you enjoy these books, as that indicates taking pleasure from what you are reading, and no one (I hope!) should feel that about rape, torture or murder.

It is more like you endure them, but they do have a profound effect on you, one you want others to experience, and that is the sign of a good book.

'But those books were all written for adults!' I hear you cry. Yes, this is true they are. So is the problem with The Bunker Diary the fact that it is for a younger audience?

Have times changed or have children changed?

Well firstly let's get one thing straight, this is not a bed time story for excitable four year olds, this book is aimed at teenagers and young adults, old enough to stay home alone or babysit younger children. If we trust them with the care of another human being, I think we can trust them to be able to handle a book that doesn't have a happy ending. It is true that this book took 10 years to be published as the publishers believed it was too morbid, so have times changed or have children changed?

I think it is a bit of both. The Grimm Fairy Tales are hardly a bundle of laughs, especially if you read the uncensored versions, but their popularity has ensured they are still read 200 years later. Children of all ages are drawn to darker stories, we only have to look at the popularity of Roald Dahl, Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling to know this is true. This is not a bad thing, quite the opposite, as no child should be raised to think the world will ensure their happy ever after.

I have to disagree with Amanda Craig of The Independent, who believes: 'that none of these novels will continue to be read with enthusiasm by future generations because of the way they end.' I plan to read these very books to my children and my grandchildren because, just as a happy ending does not guarantee a good book, an unhappy ending does not mean a book cannot be appreciated.

The point has been made that many of the darker stories popular at the moment, such as The Hunger Games, are fantasy novels which are removed from the real world as though this creates a protective barrier around those who read them. Personally I do not think this is true, if a character means something to the reader, be they house elf, child gladiator or hostage, their mistreatment and death will have a profound effect on them. This is called empathy, and is something all children should learn.

And while we are on this point, has anyone actually asked the intended readership what they think of this book?

Or are all the adult reviewers squabbling about it in a Helen Lovejoy won't-somebody-please-think-of-the-children manner? Perhaps the views of the audience it was meant for would be worth listening to, and they might even surprise us.

See our reccomendations for books that explore difficult themse well for teens.

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