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.
I picked this book up absolutely clueless as to what it was – it sounded familiar, but I had no idea just how significant it is. Melvin Burgess’ Junk was the first YA novel of its kind, and certainly unlike any other YA novel I’ve ever read.
Junk celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, and as such Melvin Burgess was awarded the Andersen Press Young Adult Book Prize Special Achievement Award. Andersen Press are also releasing a 20th anniversary edition of the novel. So what makes it so special?
I think the most striking thing about the novel is that it doesn’t have an agenda. Burgess doesn’t write about drugs in a way that simply aims to educate and teach young people to stay away from drugs, he writes, as you’d expect from a novelist, to tell a story. I think this is another book, much like Alice Oswald’s Dart, in which the author’s note explains the point perfectly;
This book is set roughly in the early and middle 1980s, when I myself was living in Bristol. All the major events have happened, are happening and will no doubt continue to happen. I saw many of them myself and heard about many more. As for the people here… some are pure invention, some are seeded from real people and then fictionalised, some are fictitious with bits of real people stirred in. The only proper portrait is Richard, one of the nicest and strangest people I’ve ever met, who is beyond praise or prosecution, bless him. He died on the motorway some years ago.
The book isn’t fact; it isn’t even faction. But it’s all true, every word.
While I kept Burgess’ words in my head, I still remained sceptical throughout the book. Most media about drugs, particularly media aimed at young people, is biased. It shows drugs as dangerous, lethal even – not worth a high that even if mentioned is played down or interrupted by something to distract from it. Burgess doesn’t do this, and neither do his characters. The story is informative, but not in an overtly intentional way.
The main characters of the novel are Gemma and Tar. Gemma is a typical young teenager, and is, frankly, very annoying. Tar is a gentle, quiet boy who runs away from home to Bristol after suffering greatly at the hands of his violent father and alcoholic mother. The novel largely follows their stories, however is written from the point of view of 10 different characters. I think this is how it depicts drug culture so well – differing views allow readers to get a more well-rounded picture of the situation.
The novel is very matter-of-fact. It doesn’t glorify the situation, nor does it condemn it. The characters are compelling, but not necessarily sympathetic. I think this is what makes it so successful as a Young Adult novel – it’s honest. Teenagers, like adults, respond well to honesty and controversial topics like these, while sensitive, should be handled in a way that allows young people to form a well-informed opinion. We cannot deny that these things happen. We cannot deny that there are awful consequences to drug abuse, of course, but we cannot deny that there is a reason drug abuse happens in the first place. Drugs feel good – everyone knows that. Teenagers know that, no matter how much we try to hide it from them. In not informing our teenagers we run the risk of them trying to find out what drugs are like first hand. Of course, there’s nothing to say that they wouldn’t anyway, but in showing young people a book like this, that shows them the realities of drugs –the good and the bad- we educate them in a way that resonates.
This book is immensely powerful, and although I read it as an adult the importance of it is evident. I finished it and immediately thought ‘this needs to be shown to teenagers’, assuming this would never be passed off as a young adult book, so I find it relieving that it is in fact categorised as such.
Read this book. Have your kids read this book. This book is so important.
See you soon,
Last Post: Me Monday – The Truth