Title: Junk (1996 novel)
Author: Melvin Burgess
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult, Drug addiction
Rating: 4/5 stars
“It was a love story. Me, Gemma, and junk.” – Tar
Tar and Gemma. One boy, one girl. They are each other’s rocks (or, that’s what they would like to believe) and believe that their love can withstand anything. Tar’s situation at home is enough to convince him to run away, and soon Gemma follows suit. They meet teens their age, fall in love with adventure, freedom, and, ultimately, heroin and drugs. Their bliss is short-lived when reality kicks in and life happens.
Young love: Tar and Gemma’s love starts off strong, despite the chaos that surrounds their lives all the way throughout. But they were never meant to last. Tar loved Gemma, but Gemma didn’t love Tar. She cared about him, she wanted to love him, but nothing changed the way she felt about him, not even when she had Tar’s baby. The reason this is such a central theme is because Burgess lets the relationship between these two protagonists happen progressively and naturally, instead of just shoving it in the reader’s face. He lets Tar and Gemma live their lives, their ups and downs, to eventually let them separate for good.
Drug addiction: The fact that this theme is combined with teenagers and love makes it so much more powerful. The way drugs are portrayed in this book is unlike anything I have read before (then again – I haven’t read many books dealing with drug addiction, I believe). The author dissects the thoughts and feelings that the characters have at each phase towards the peak of their addiction, their failed attempts to come clean, and their eventual acceptance of the harsh reality to actually come clean.
David, aka “Tar”: Abused by his father and manipulated by his mother, he started off with a clear conscience but the poor kid did not have a healthy childhood to enable him to make wise decisions later on. When he ran away, he grew dependent of those around him, but was still badly influenced by Gemma and her new friends. He’s the kid that would politely decline when offered a drug of any sort, but his will was not strong enough to resist the temptations that Gemma and the others gave him. In summary, Tar ran away from the abuse and manipulation of his alcoholic parents to fall into the hands of drugs. He ended up becoming a drug addict, but would he have been better off if he had stayed at home? Hard to say.
Gemma: Tar’s girlfriend and a very rebellious 14-year-old. She decides to join Tar after he ran away, and is the first to try out all the ‘new’ things: parties, drugs, new friends, etc. With Tar head over heels for her, Gemma had no trouble influencing him to join her in every deed to live the ‘real’ life. She becomes a prostitute, a heroin addict, and ends up having Tar’s baby.
The plot was set in Bristol, England. The feeling that this setting gave me was akin to a ‘behind the scenes’ peek into a harsh reality for many teenagers. There’s no doubt that there are still countless teenagers who fall into the trap of drugs, persuaded by love and peer pressure. But the fact that Tar and Gemma’s lives were portrayed to such depth and extent in this one setting, makes Bristol even more presence.
I was definitely not fond of the writing style, but for the sake of this novel, I think it was perfect. Narrations were made from the protagonists’ (and other primary characters) perspective – teenagers who didn’t quite complete their education. It was very raw, visual and easy to follow through.
Junk is a very dark book, especially considering that it’s a YA fiction – aimed for a young audience. It’s probably one of those books that schools would likely say “no” to, because, how do you teach your students about young love and drug addiction? I definitely think that reading the book is strong enough to change a teen’s mind towards ‘the world of drugs’, but it’s nevertheless a sensitive topic to deal with. That’s why I loved it. Not many author can portray such topics in their true light with the rawness and humility that Burgess did here.