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Junk: Adapted for the stage (Modern Plays) Paperback – February 15, 1999
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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“John Retallack's excellent adaptation of Melvin Burgess's controversial Carnegie Medal winning novel is splendidly unpatronising…a truly cautionary tale” ―Independent
From the Back Cover
junk = heroin = bliss = despair = a love affair you'll never forget
'It was a love story. Me, Gemma and junk.' Tar loves Gemma, but Gemma doesn't want to be tied down -- not to anyone or anything. Gemma wants to fly. But no one can fly forever. One day, somehow, finally, you have to come down.
Top customer reviews
Now, to get to the point: whatever you want to call it, the story of Tar and Gemma is a calculated, horrifying tale of young adulthood, and how easily addiction can rob a person of the rest of one's life. Tar and Gemma's relationship transforms from sweet young love into a sick, codependent lifestyle that continually drags them down into the mud, again and again, in a novel that only becomes increasingly painful to read as it goes along. The portrait painted of Tar, a character who is at first tremendously likable, depicts a terrifying downward spiral, and many of the gruesome images that Burgess writes about will stick in the reader's minds for years to come.
Told in first-person narrative by a wide range of characters, the novel mainly focuses on David "Tar" Lawson and Gemma Brogan, two teenagers who run away from home to Bristol. Finding a place amongst a group of anarchists, the two eventually move in with Rob and Lily, two fellow teenagers who get them hooked on heroin. From there, it is a downward spiral into desperate addiction, as Tar turns to shoplifting and Gemma becomes a prostitute in order to fund their need for heroin. There is some truly heartbreaking stuff in here, as the teens first try to convince themselves (and the reader) that they are completely in control of their lives, then justify their illegal actions, and finally find that they're unable to break their habit when a friend gets pregnant. An especially harrowing passage describes Gemma's feelings after a failed attempt at going cold turkey: "I knew I was really a junkie this time because, what's a junkie scared of? Not Aids, not overdosing, like you might think. We were scared because there might be no more smack at the other end."
What is apparent to everyone but the ignorant teenagers is that the much-celebrated freedom from their parents is only temporary - soon enough they make themselves prisoners of a far more restrictive lifestyle, one that eventually strips away all their opportunities for a decent life. Their joy at their initial independence gradually gives way to a de-habilitating desire for heroin, and watching their world shrink down to a dismal cycle of drug abuse is (in my opinion) vividly portrayed by Burgess.
Tar and Gemma's stories are closely intertwined, and it's hard to place blame on just one of the teens for the predicament they find themselves in. Tar is the first to run away, (understandable considering his abusive father and drunken mother) but he encourages Gemma to join him. Gemma runs away simply because she is not getting on with her strict parents, but her loud and stubborn personality (which often slips into obnoxiousness) is the reason Tar gives up the relative safety of the anarchists squat for the home of the drug-addicted Rob and Lily. Surrounding them are chapters devoted to others in their immediate circle: Richard and Vonny, the anarchists who do their best to help the teens, Rob and Lily, the hopeless addicts who live each day to the fullest, and even the teenagers' parents, who recount their devastation and sense of failure. These chapters help round out the point-of-view of the main narrative (for instance, Vonny recounts how spoilt Gemma is, a trait that Gemma certainly doesn't recognize in herself), as well as reveal information about grey characters - the storekeeper Skolly for example, seems like a helpful guy at first, though several chapters on we realize that he's unknowingly part of the cycle of addition that entraps Gemma.
The book was first published in 1996, and so many may feel that it has dated. However, it's worth saying that even though it was written in the 90s, Burgess sets it in the 1980s - as such, many components (such as the song lyrics that head several chapters) are intended to be old-fashioned. Whether this upsets your reading pleasure or not depends on how well you can relate to teenagers of an older generation.
As I said at the beginning of the review, "Junk" is a book that you'll find meaningful or worthless. The controversial subject matter means that audiences will have widely different opinions on how effective it is as a reading text, probably depending on their own experience (or inexperience) with drugs. There's really no way to tell until you've read it. For what it's worth, I found it a worthwhile read, and would particularly recommend it to parents who want to share the subject with young teens (thirteen to sixteen year olds, possibly) as Burgess describes drug-use, sex, prostitution, violence and unwanted pregnancy without ever resorting to gratuitous descriptions or by abandoning everything to despair, despite the ambiguous ending.
Throughout the novel, Burgess focuses on four characters in particular: Tar, Gemma, Lily and Rob. Lily and Rob are senior users of junk. Partying, taking drugs, even prostitution is nothing new to them. Tar, the protagonist, is sensible and responsible but unlucky. Unlucky to be born into a family with alcoholic parents; unlucky to have met Gemma, his girlfriend, who introduced him to drugs' unlucky to be the only one caught. He represents the typical teenager: confident to say `no' to drugs but slowly being dragged in due to peer-pressure. `The thing I have to remember is that I'm weak and that they're weak' said Tar after being in the `detox' centre for a while. Is he strong enough to stand firm and quit drugs or is the temptation towards heroin too strong for him to handle?
The novel Junk is easy to understand and is suitable for people of all ages. I would strongly recommend this novel to teenagers who are curious about drug-taking. It is a fast-paced book that depicts the daunting reality of drugs. What I find fascinating is the way Burgess describes the characters and the settings which provide the readers with an image that is very real. `As for the people here... some are pure invention, some are seeded from real people and then fictionalized, some are fictitious with bits of real people stirred in,' commented Burgess in the introduction of his novel. Burgess, using the style of a teenager, writes his novel in the form of diary entries by different people. Furthermore, his style includes conversations and slang words which help make his fictional characters more realistic.
To conclude, Junk is a compelling novel of truths about drug-use and certainly a must-read for teenagers.