Bunkeya is the first ever instalment of A P Handley’s Danny Rook secret history series. In the genesis of this enthralling secret history, we are introduced to seventeen-year-old wonderkid, Danny Rook, who against his family’s wishes, leaves his comfortable, albeit dull life in Southern Rhodesia to join a mercenary cause in the Congo. However, it does not take long for us or Danny to realise he is way over his head, as accompanying the brutal conflict in central Africa comes not only several Cold War political players, but the surprise crash landing of an RAF aircraft with something valuable, yet extremely dangerous inside. A major crisis could now potentially arise as all sides try to get their hands on what’s in the aircraft. If this was not enough of a plot to thicken your blood, Red China has ambitions to become a nuclear power and has sent agents into the Congo in search of uranium, only to find much more than they could have hoped for. The plot of Bunkeya therefore becomes a literal ticking time bomb.
In this first of five secret Danny Rook histories, Handley presents for us a perfect kind of historical fiction: secret history – a form of narrative plotted by, but not restrained by real-life events, yet without forcing on the readers any outright historical conspiracy. In other words, the events in Bunkeya may not have happened – but they just as easily could have.
Although Bunkeya is the story of, in Handley’s own words, “How Danny Rook left home, acquired a history, and failed to stop Mao getting the H-bomb”, this is by no means a spoiler ending – as we may know beforehand that China attains the bomb, but by reading through the several intertwining plots and political motivations embedded within Bunkeya, we truly have no idea how this story will turn out. And although Rook is our heroically naïve protagonist, his adventures as an electronic wiz turned jungle mercenary is just one needle in a haystack full of political players within and outside of Africa. Yet, despite these numerous settings and behind the scenes characters that continually leave us guessing, we’re always brought back to Danny as he learns one of life’s most brutal lessons: that it’s either kill or be killed – a lesson that will surely stick with him throughout this secret history series.
Bunkeya may well be a secret history, designed to invite readers to speculate about the blanks in our shared past, but by Handley’s careful handling of historical fact with fiction, the novel also demonstrates just how big a role Africa played in the Cold War game – and should perhaps remind us that although the days of colonialism were gone, the scramble for Africa would no doubt continue, resulting in much more tragedy and bloodshed. And though the location of Bunkeya itself has little involvement in this novel which dawns its name, the title instead acts, in true Conradian fashion, as a reminder from colonial times past of how greed and power will undoubtedly lead to sorrow and destruction for others.
An extremely gripping, well-crafted and ironically unpredictable read to start off the Danny Rook secret history series with a bang, Bunkeya will leave you yearning for far more adventures to come. After all, China may well get its hands on the H-bomb, but Danny Rook’s involvement in the secret histories of the world has only just begun.