Two teens fall in love with each other and heroin. Tar has reasons for running away from home that run deep and sour, whereas Gemma, with her middle-class roots firmly on show, has a deep-rooted lust for adventure. Their first hit brings bliss, the next despair.
I first discovered this book aged 12 on a shopping trip with my Mum. As bribery for accompanying her into about 4,000 boring ‘Mum shops’, she said that she would buy me a book. WIN.
After browsing the young adult section, I remember picking up Junk and handing it to my Mum with a ‘please please please, remember I’m your favourite child’ face. She took one look at the syringe on the front and one look at the blurb on the back and refused. I think I ended up moodily selecting a Jacqueline Wilson instead.
Moral of the story: My mother was right to not let me read it at that age. I probably wouldn’t have liked it, and despite thinking I was an pretty worldly, grown up kinda gal, a lot of the writing would have been completely lost on me. However, I do think that reading it at that age would have put me off of boys, drugs, parties and running away from home forever. Probably could’ve saved yourself some shouting there, Mum…
So, what did I think of Junk?
It’s touted as one of the best UKYA books about drug addiction and…I liked it. Don’t get me wrong: I liked it. But did I love it as much as I wanted to? Sadly not.
My favourite thing about Junk is Melvin Burgess’ approach. He doesn’t waste time with floaty, poetic metaphors about addiction and he doesn’t glamourise the situations that Gemma and Tar find themselves in. The story is bleak and it feels real, which I have a lot of respect for. I also found that it doesn’t really have an agenda – it’s not written with a ‘Say No To Drugs, Kids’ slant and despite the stark subject matter, Burgess leaves the reader to make up their minds about the characters.
The writing is without a doubt what makes this book a powerful one. The prose isn’t over descriptive or contrived, and Burgess prevents the story from dissolving into melodrama with sharp observation and good characterisation. He writes teenagers well, and despite reading this book 14 years after its publication I still found the dialogue believable which is pretty bloody impressive. No peng here guys, soz.
Gemma and Tar are interesting main characters. I understood Tar’s motives and although his story was tragic, I thought his arc was exceedingly well-judged and well written. Gemma, though, is another matter. POTENTIAL UNPOPULAR OPINION KLAXON: I didn’t like her from the off. She wasn’t written badly, but I just couldn’t connect with her character on any level. Perhaps if I’d read Junk ten years ago I would’ve found some common ground in her whiny, selfish girl act, but aged 24 I couldn’t. Probably for the best!
If done well, I’m usually a fan of the ‘ol split person narrative but here, I wasn’t keen. I thought it was a good choice to have both Gemma and Tar as dual narrators, because it was a good way to expose the lies that they told themselves and each other during the depths of their addiction. However, I found the addition of numerous other characters perspectives a little clunky.
On the whole, I liked Junk. I found it to be a gritty read, but it wasn’t as powerful as I wanted it to be. Maybe after all of these years, I built it up too much, but sadly I just didn’t connect the way that I wanted to.
- Author: Melvin Burgess
- Release Date: March 2003
- Pages: 389
- Rating: 3.5/5
- For fans of: UKYA, gritty books, contemporary YA.