Six years ago, while on a camping trip, Eli’s billionaire father received the warning they’d all been dreading: imminent nuclear attack. The family fled to the compound, their own personal shelter, to wait out the duration of the fallout. Two of them - Eli’s grandmother and his identical twin Eddy - didn’t make it, but the rest have been underground ever since, surviving on canned food and counting down the years till the outside will be safe again. Six years down, nine to go.
Eli has isolated himself from the rest of the family, blaming himself for the loss of his brother. His younger sister watches Mary Poppins every day, and talks in an English accent. His older sister helps out in the ominous yellow room, but doesn’t stay there any longer than she has to. The food supply is dwindling. Eli’s father has a plan to ensure they survive down there for the next nine years, but at what cost?
I love a post-apocalyptic novel, so a story set inside a nuclear shelter was always going to appeal to me. Living underground, growing vegetables under fluorescent bulbs, scanning radio stations for signs of life - I love that stuff. But the first thing I want to say about The Compound is this: even if you don’t like sci-fi, don’t write this one off. It’s a story about survival, and whether survival for its own sake is enough. When you know the door to the outside world is on timelock for nine more years and the food will only last for eight, how far will you go? It’s also about family relationships: how twisted they can be, how much we need them, and how they can be saved even when they seem to be past saving. I spent most of this book trying to stop my jaw from literally dropping open, and the rest with tears in my eyes. The Compound is one of the most disturbing and tense books I’ve read in a long time. It’s also one of the very best.
Confession time: I don’t gravitate towards books with male protagonists. If a book has a great premise but a male narrator, I tend to assume I’ll enjoy the story but won’t come to care about the main character. It’s my number one #readerfail, and The Compound was having none of it. Yes, this book has a just-can’t-put-it-down storyline, but it also has a male teen protagonist that I could genuinely relate to. Since he entered the compound and lost his identical twin, Eli hasn’t let another person touch him. He’s grown his hair to hide behind, and retreated into himself. Through Eli, Bodeen actually showed me what it might be like to be a boy. To have sisters whose behave in those indecipherable ways that girls do. To have an alpha-male father you can never be strong enough or smart enough to truly impress. To cultivate toughness and aloofness, to hold onto it for years, and then finally to take the terrifying first steps towards letting it go and actually letting yourself feel love.
I read The Compound in the space of twenty-four hours, in every spare moment I could find. I read it on the bus to work, and missed my stop. I read it at lunchtime, because suddenly eating didn’t seem so important to me anymore. Why? Because from the first page, the stakes in this novel are as high as they could possibly be. Pretty early on, it’s clear that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to Eli and his family. There’s much worse in store for them. Things they might have to do to survive that don’t even bear thinking about. Truths the reader wills them to stumble upon but knows will throw them into turmoil.
Bodeen is a master of suspense, keeping the reader hanging until they almost can’t take it any more - and that’s when she really delivers. The payoff is huge: a twisting, gut-wrenching, page-turning frenzy of action and revelation. Sure, some may feel that the ending of this book becomes a little too cinematic for their tastes. And yes, the author employs a horror movie touch here, a thriller set-piece there - but it all worked for me, simply because she pitches everything just right. Plus, and this is key: she never loses sight of Eli's emotional journey. Not for a second.
I finished this book on the bus home from work, and it was all I could do not to turn to the guy next to me, say ‘Read this,’ and hand the book to him. So that’s what I’m saying to you: read this. Just read it.