Review: Junk by Melvin Burgess

Junk. - Melvin Burgess

When I read this book I was pretty young, I was pretty naive. I guess I thought I was this incredibly mature, cool chick and that I knew where it was at, as many teens do. Truth is, I didn't know shit. I'm 23 now. I've been through some rough times - I left home too young, got involved in shit I had no business getting involved in, made some poor life choices and suffered a wicked bad case of burn-out. My eyes are now open.


I guess what I'm trying to say is that my teenage self thought this book was cool. Yeah, it's shocking, it's heavy subject matter, but the characters are living a fast paced life, dabbling in drugs on the edge of society. They have freedom, independence and wild, colourful experiences. My adult self, following a whole world of fuck-ups all my own, thinks this book is not cool. It's intense, it's bleak and at times, heartbreakingly sad.

The story follows a whole cast of messed up characters. But our two main protagonists are two lost teenagers, Tar and Gemma who come from very different backgrounds but end up in very similar, shitty situations. Tar leaves home because life at the hands of his abusive, alcoholic parents becomes unbearable. Gemma leaves home because she's a bored, spoiled brat. However, they both end up getting tangled up with the wrong crowd, one thing leads to another and they find themselves addicted to heroin.


Melvin Burgess paints an interesting picture of drugs abuse and addiction ... You're having fun, right? Drugs make you feel good, right? All your friends are doing it so it must be great, right? No. Drugs steal your life until your whole world becomes nothing but your addiction. Drugs take your choices, your health and your self respect until all you're capable of is chasing your next high. Gemma and Lily turn to prostitution to pay for their habit, Lily gives birth to a baby already hooked on heroin, Tar loses his love and talent for art because all he cares about is getting wasted. The book spirals down and down into this black hole as the characters became more and more dependent on heroin. It's a wonderful portrayal of how one thing leads to another, how your life can take turns you never planned it to and how easy it can be to slip into a lifestyle you never expected.


The character development, in my opinion is fabulous. Gemma is a bitch. You will hate her. She's a complete brat. She just wants to rebel and she's incredibly immature, resenting her parents and her life just because she lives in a small town where nothing much happens. She's searching for excitement, a cheap thrill. The scary thing? She reminds me of a lot of teenagers I know, or have known. Everyone knows at least one kid who wants to grow up too fast, who wants desperately to be cool and to fit in, who succumbs to peer pressure frighteningly easily. But at the end of the day they are still just kids. However, as the story progresses we see a change in Gemma, she begins to grow up and change. It's very subtle until at the end of the book we are left with a completely different girl from the person we started with due to her experiences along the way.


I would not say that this is a book for younger teens, it's definitely young adult, not young teen as I think it needs to be read with a certain mindset and awareness. Parts of the story appear on the surface to be almost glorifying substance abuse as we follow Gemma and Tar's first experiences of drug use. However, in my opinion it has been written this way to create authenticity as indeed, in the early stages of use and addiction, particularly to kids as young as Gemma and Tar the whole debacle would feel like a glorious adventure. This quickly descends into a nightmare though as things get out of control. So while reading, I think it would be important that the reader would be aware that the story is attempting to be an accurate portrayal of developing addiction and it does spiral into an horrendous situation, the book does not in any way promote drug use if the whole story is read through and thought over.


The writing at times is slow, particularly the beginning, it drags it's feet a little as we get to know Gemma in her home town, seemingly mostly populated by the elderly and a gang of rebellious teens. There is some room for confusion with the largish cast of characters, I can see how for some people it could take a while to get a handle on who everyone is as the story is narrated by many different voices. Having said that however, every character is vividly individual and the character development is fantastic. One more issue I had was the use of time ... It jumps around and passes oddly, so it's the next day and then all of a sudden it's the following month. It's hard to grasp how long the whole situation has been going on for.


Give Junk a go if you can stomach details of heroin addiction, it's incredibly interesting and emotional. I don't think I knew what I was reading when I first picked it up, I do now. I understand that it is based on several true to life stories and incidents, which is a very sad thought.