“It was a love story. Me, Gemma and junk. I thought it was going to last forever.”
Tar loves Gemma, but Gemma doesn’t want to be tied down. She wants to fly. But no one can fly forever. One day, finally, you have to come down. Melvin Burgess’ most ambitious and complex novel is a vivid depiction of a group of teenagers in the grip of addiction. Told from multiple viewpoints, Junk is a powerful, unflinching novel about heroin. Once you take a hit, you will never be the same again.
Written in 1996 but set in the early and mid 80s, Junk is a fictional yet completely honest story about heroin addiction in teenagers. The main characters are Tar and Gemma who leave home and start their lives again in Bristol aged 14. Tar is running away from his abusive parents: his mum is an alcoholic and his dad hits him, while Gemma wants to lead a life of freedom that her parents won’t let her have. Their reasons for leaving home are completely different, and yet they both find comfort in heroin.
Junk is told through the voices of Gemma and Tar, as well as the people that they meet along the way. I really love the varying viewpoints and I think that as well as giving depth and balance to the story, it makes reading Junk such an important experience. Nothing is told as fact but every bit of this book is told as truth. As a result I felt so connected to each character’s story and felt understanding of their experiences. I finished Junk feeling more empowered and more educated about an addict’s life than I ever have before.
I was really surprised by how strongly I felt for the characters because I’ve never known anyone who’s in a situation similar those described in Junk. When Gemma and Tar run away from home they literally have nothing and consequently haven’t anything to lose by stealing or squatting. As the story progresses and their situation becomes much darker I really did feel for them when they were making incredibly difficult sacrifices to sustain their addictions. I think it’s so important that neither the characters nor the reader are judged by Junk, and Melvin gives every reader the chance to build their own opinions about what they’ve read.
I mentioned earlier about how I was surprised to have felt for the characters but really I shouldn’t have been because whether you’re an addict or homeless or a dealer or a prostitute, you’re still a person like everyone else, and human characteristics like love or empathy don’t stop because of the situation that you’re in. Melvin never once suggests that you should view a particular character a certain way and because of that every character is presented as a perfectly flawed human being just like the reader.
Another aspect of Junk that I think is so important is that the teenage characters are treated the same as the adults. For a lot of the characters their age is never mentioned and for those whose ages we do know, it’s often not revealed until many chapters after they’ve been introduced. It’s unsurprising that Junk is considered one of (if not THE) first YA novel as the younger characters aren’t patronised or spoken down and are instead listened to and have their issues and problems validated.
Junk is powerful, engaging, upsetting, and comforting all at once, and is honestly one of the most fantastic books that I’ve ever read. Along with Asking For It by Louise O’Neill I think this is a book that every teenager and adult should read. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but situations like those in Junk happen every day and I think it’s crucial that we allow ourselves to step into that world and challenge our preconceptions. Junk feels as relevant today as any contemporary YA novel that I’ve read recently, and I’m sure it will continue to be praised in years to come.
Thank you so much to Anderson Press for giving me a copy of Junk at the Federation of Children’s Book Groups conference.