YA Fiction: Junk – Melvin Burgess

junk-cover2Like a lot of  drug literature, Junk caused a vast amount of outrage when first published in 1996. A novel about heroin?… For children?! It was just unheard of. Young fiction was aimed at around 11 – 12 year olds; Junk was dealing with issues saved for the weak, guilty and unemployed, Trainspotting generation. However, it was (and still is) important for drug culture to be explored in an ever-expanding generation, where young people are becoming more and more vulnerable.

This novel is perhaps too close to home for a lot of young people. Set in Bristol, Junk discusses the ups and downs of both addiction, relationships and teenagers battling to find their place in the world. It is told through the first-person perspective of Tar and Gemma. After Tar runs away from his abusive and alcoholic parents; moving from squat to squat in attempt to settle some sort of life, his girlfriend Gemma decides to join him, despite having loving parents who are decidedly well-off. In the beginning, although the pair coming from different backgrounds, they do love each other – or at least, Gemma thinks they do.

The pair join a group of well-mannered anarchists who reflect the social issues of the 90s. Lack of employment and a greedy government cause them to liberate themselves, throwing graffiti and locking up the banks with super glue. Its fun, its new and most of all, its innocent. However, its not long before things take a sour turn. Gemma doesn’t fit in and she finds herself willingly falling into a different crowd; the wrong crowd, dragging Tar with her. She is rebellious, stubborn and seems unfazed by Tar’s gentle and responsible manner. It is not long before Tar finds himself submitting to Gemma’s experimentation with drugs; he’s like a dog, blindly following his master. They fall into the clutches of heroin addiction, along with Lily and her boyfriend Rob; a couple who believe themselves to be ‘free’ yet under the unrelenting control of illicit drugs.

Burgess manages to successfully balance the themes of innocence and coming-of-age, with that of the raw and realistic world of addiction. Its real and mirrors the predicament a lot of young people find themselves in when their home life has given them no other choice.

Despite its original reception, Junk won several rewards including the Guardian Fiction award and Carnegie Medal. Like a lot of young adult fiction, its an easy read and is straight to the point; therefore its message is stark and I think will be relevant for many decades to come.


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