Book review

Junk by Melvin Burgess (1996)



For those of us who have never taken any, it's difficult to understand just how good this stuff can really make you feel, at first. There are plenty of characters here who need to find out how it is to feel good, but we are all pretty clear by the end, (even if we weren't clear at the beginning), that junk - heroin - is not the right way to go about it.

This is one of the most compelling and disturbing books that I have ever read. It is disturbing because you can see right from page one that these people are just absolutely no good for each other. And every person in this book is so real, I'm sure I've met most of them myself.

So, Tar. He's the character we identify with, I think. Aged fourteen, propping up his alcoholic mother, regularly beaten by his alcoholic father, he finally abandons them and runs away to Bristol. Oh Grief, he is so vulnerable. After a fortnight or so begging on the streets and sleeping in derelict buildings, he falls in with a decent group of squatters. That was a stroke of luck, or a stroke of kindness, and IF ONLY he'd stayed put with them this book might never have been written! ...

But, Gemma. This kid is also fourteen. She's got power-crazed authoritarian parents who never learnt the trick of critical self-analysis. She must have been fairly wayward, staying out all night on the beach, or what-have-you, before the book began, but you would think her parents must have thought to themselves at some point that squeezing their daughter into a straitjacket until her brain juices start dribbling out through her ears was not the way to introduce her to notions of common sense and self-control.

Gemma abandons them and runs away to join Tar in Bristol. Now, she knows that gentle, confused Tar loves her because he needs to. And she knows perfectly well that she doesn't love him. She just wants to go mad.

It is Gemma who revolts against the decent squatters, Vonny and Richard, who were looking after Tar. Gemma takes up with the feckless and fascinating Lily and Rob. And Gemma it is who decides to take heroin first. Tar follows.

Melvin Burgess. He traces the good times, the decline, the dull realization that things have gone too far, the grossness of the end game. He does it immaculately.

This story is narrated by the participants. Everyone has their say, one by one. It's a very powerful story. If you read it, perhaps you will spend a little time, like I did, pondering Tar's situation. Was Gemma blameworthy for leading him astray? Was he destined for addiction, in some form, like his parents before him? What a pity no-one ever felt able to help him properly. He was only a young lad.

[heroin: C19, coined in German as a trademark, probably from HERO, referring to its aggrandizing effect on the personality]

What can I read next?

If you like the way Melvin Burgess tells this story, you might like to look at his new book:

Life doesn't always treat you the way it should. Have a look at this one by David Belbin:

Or this one by Gaye Hicyilmaz:

If you fancy another story with a real boy/girl relationship, take a look at this one by Susan Price:

Nothing to do with drugs, but if you enjoy Junk you would probably also survive this one by Rachel Anderson. (It's in the horror section):

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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