Title: Junk (also published as Smack)
Author: Melvin Burgess
Publisher: Harper Teen
Awards: Guardian Fiction Award, Carnegie Medal (1996)
Keywords: teenagers, life, drugs, responsibility
Tar and Gemma are in love. 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. Together they explore the dark world of the streets, moving quickly on from the first hit of heroin that takes them towards bliss, to the next hit that ultimately leads to despair.
Subject/Originality: Nowadays, books about the real-life problems facing teenagers aren't uncommon. But you have to take this book in its context - when it was published, it was the first of its kind, innovative and daring and controversial. It's hard-hitting, doesn't shy away from telling things like they are. And I think it's a very good book from that angle.
Storyline: This got really tedious. But, having said that, it was making a point. Gemma and Tar got on drugs, got off them, on, off, on, off. That's basically the whole storyline right there for you. But Burgess shows us through that repetition of drug use how difficult it is to not only get off drugs, but to stay off them. And so I think that, although it's not a fantastic storyline, there's a reason for it being so, and as a technique, it works.
Characters: This book is very interesting from a characters angle, as well. I didn't like any of them. But I don't think I was meant to, so again it's a technique. Gemma starts off selfish, while Tar is nice and kind and sweet - and vulnerable. And then they swap over about halfway through the book. Again, Burgess uses the characters to his advantage and manipulates the reader into liking or not liking them, but it makes heavy reading if you actually don't like any of the characters!
Writing Style: Most of the characters in Junk/Smack chip in with a bit of narration, although it's mainly Gemma and Tar who share it. I liked the way you get lots of different viewpoints from this, but it also stopped me from really getting into any one character's story. Also, I felt all the narrating voices' styles were quite similar. I always think, from a writer's point of view, that a multi-viewpoint story gives you a great chance to explore different writing styles for each character, but Burgess hasn't done this here, which, I think, is a wasted opportunity.
Writing Style: ***
Enjoyability: I enjoyed Junk/Smack, despite what I've said about it not being great from all the other angles. I read it very quickly - in about a day and a half - and I enjoyed every page. Some bits of it were more heavy-going than others - because of the content and the things they were discussing - but I really did enjoy it. It engaged me.
Summary: This is an okay book, from most angles. Characters, meh; writing style, okay; storyline, not much - but I enjoyed it. It's not an easy read, because it deals with difficult content and situations, but it is both an enjoyable one and an important one. I definitely think that all teenagers, young adults and even older adults should read Junk/Smack, because of the content it deals with. Kids, if you want to go on drugs, this book'll put you right off. So yes, it's important, for understanding the druggie underworld of our lives, and to know to steer well away from it.
Word Rating: a good-good book