Author: Melvin Burgess
First published in 1996, Junk caused outrage with its candid depiction of heroin use in a book written for teenagers. A recent BBC radio interview with the author prompted me to order the 25th anniversary edition of the book, and find out what the fuss was about.
Set in the mid-eighties, Junk tells the story of two fourteen-year-olds who run away from home. Tar is escaping a violent father and an alcoholic, manipulative mother. Gemma wants to get away from her repressive, disciplinarian parents. When Tar makes his way to Bristol, he finds a group of people living on the margins of society. They find vacant houses to open as squats for homeless people to live in, and after sleeping rough for a couple of weeks, Tar moves in to their latest squatted property.
With somewhere safe to run to, Gemma gets away and joins Tar in Bristol. While he is happy to have found a new support network, she is excited to explore the freedom of her new home. Tar is a sensible runaway. He’s looking for the stability he’s never had, and he sets out to help the squatters, decorate his room, and contribute as much as he can to their community. But Gemma wants more. She’s had enough of obedience and rule-following, and when she meets a new group of friends at a party she is won over by their dreamy, otherworldly attitude to life.
As she is gradually drawn in to their circle, she begins to accept their heroin habit as part of what she loves about them. She tries the drug, with their assurances that she doesn’t need to be addicted, and their encouragement that she can stop at any time. She draws Tar in to the group, and introduces him to the habit.
Burgess is very honest. He makes sure the reader understands why his characters choose to take heroin. He describes the effect on Tar as feeling all the pain of his experiences floating away. He doesn’t experience a high, but he loses the pain he’s been carrying with him. For a fourteen-year-old boy escaping domestic violence, finding something that takes away the hurt he’s carrying feels miraculous.
The book charts their continued experiences with the drug, and their constant reassurances to themselves and each other that they can stop at any time. Their struggles when they try to kick the habit are heartbreaking, and again Burgess doesn’t pull his punches. The slow build up of addiction, the risks they take, and the things they are willing to do make money for drugs make for a hard read. We spend half the book getting to know these vulnerable, lonely young people, only to witness their understandable transformation into characters whose only motivation is their next hit.
I won’t spoil the story, and I’m not sure what I thought of the ending, but whatever controversy the book continues to cause, it should be on everyone’s reading list. Burgess uses his contrasting characters and multiple narrators to explore the attractions as well as the destructive side of addiction. He stays true to his teenage leads, and even when the story deals with their darkest experiences, it never feels like a lecture. Everything in these pages feels real, authentic, and possible – and very far from moralising or preaching. It is genuinely heartbreaking to watch two young people go through everything that happens in the story, and I badly wanted everything to work out for them in the end.
It’s not an easy read, but it is a great place to start a conversation about drugs, addiction, and personal responsibility. The review quote on the front of my paperback says ‘everyone should read Junk‘. I definitely agree.
Have you read Junk? What did you think of the story? Did you sympathise with any of the characters? Click through to the full blog to access the comments section, and share your thoughts! No spoilers, though – you can post those on GoodReads!
Review cross-posted to GoodReads.
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