Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Review: Junk by Melvin Burgess

Dear Blog,
note: this is published as Smack in the US. 

Summary (from Goodreads): Like so many teenagers, Tar and Gemma are fed up with their parents. Tar's family is alcoholic and abusive, and Gemma feels her home life is cramped by too many restrictions. The young British couple runs away to Bristol in search of freedom, and finds it in the form of a "squat." This vacant building is also occupied by two slightly older teens who share everything with Tar and Gemma (including their heroin habits). For a while, everything is parties and adventures, but slowly Tar and Gemma find themselves growing more and more dependent on the drug--whose strict mandates are even less forgiving than those of the parents they fled. As Gemma says, "You take more and more, and more often. Then you get sick of it and give up for a few days. And that's the really nasty thing because then, when you're clean, that's when it works so well."

Review:  You know when you read those books that are set at another point in time, or in another country, but still feel like they could totally happen to you, right here and right now?  Yeah, Junk is one of those books.   Even though it was published in 1996 (?) and is apparently set in the early to mid 1980s , it feels like that it's still set in the present day.  It's so contemporary, and so much of it entirely universal.  The desire to get away from your parents and stand on your own two feet, and  the urge to have a good time.  Alas, though, you know that it's inevitable that Gemma and Tar aren't going to go about it the right way. You have to watch on as gradually things go from bad to worse and worse than that.

For much of the first part of the book, I didn't really like Gemma.    I mean, I pitied her, and I wanted her to emerge from her nightmarish experiences alive, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I liked her.   Especially at the beginning of the book, I often wanted to slap her.   She was so frivolous and shallow, and so careless and thoughtless for others, it was entirely frustrating.
About two-thirds of the way into the book, though that seemed to change, and by the end of the book she seemed to be the stronger character; determined to get clean of her heroin addiction.  The book is set over the course of about five years, so you could certainly see how she had matured from a bratty child to a woman.

Tar's character seemed to be the reverse.  At the beginning I thought he was the stronger of the two, more rational and thoughtful.  Plus I pitied him for the tough time he'd had at home;  he had reasons for running away from his family, and Gemma was just along for the ride. But in the latter part of the novel he seemed less likeable and weaker.  One thing stayed the same; I still felt sorry for him, but in a different sort of way, and I still wanted him to try and turn his life around.

If you've put up with my rambling for a while you'll know I am quite the fan of multiple-narrative novels.  Done well, they work fantastically.  Forbidden, Finding Cassie Crazy, Monsters of Men and so on are amongst my favourite books, and I probably wouldn't have liked them as half as much as if there had only been one of the principal characters telling the story.  Also, it particularly pleased me that some of the secondary characters like Vonny, Richard.  The look into Lily's mind was particularly creepy  insightful. 

The plot was pretty nightmarish. It's one of those books that you want to just keep reading into the small hours of the morning, and put it down and run as far away from it as possible.  It's dark stuff. Heroin, prostitution, homelessness, abuse, heroin, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, drunken all-night parties, and did I mention heroin?  In some respects you could think of it as overkill, like an overload of issues, but you can see how one leads to another.  It's pretty claustrophobic in parts, like you're in a dark tunnel, and you want to run to the end and get out into the daylight as fast as you can.  The ending to the book isn't entirely without hope, though, so you're left wondering how and if Gemma and Tar turned their lives around.
It's certainly not a book that I'll forget easily.

In three words: dark, hard-hitting, nightmarish.
Recommended for: older teenagers.
Rating: 4.5


  1. in chapter 7, was gemma prepered 4 wat will happen in future? why?

  2. what does the dandelion represent?


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