Junk by Melvin Burgess


I am actually surprised by how positive this review is about to be! Haunted by flashbacks of the film Trainspotting (a film that I have never been able to sit through more than once) I prepared myself for a dark and disturbing world, difficult to read and hard to get out of my head. However, I was pleasantly surprised… Well, maybe pleasant isn’t quite the right word.

Junk revolves around the characters Tar and Gemma and their volatile relationship with each other, those around them and drugs. Both characters run away from home and find themselves immersed in the underground world of Bristol in the 1980s. These teenagers quickly get sucked into the squatter lifestyle, thrown into a life of crime and prostitution to support each other and their habits. Although they enjoy the freedom of being away from the control of their parents, they soon find themselves confined by their addictions.

Burgess manages to both glorify and condemn their lifestyle, taking the reader on a rollercoaster of emotion. He cleverly distorts the reader’s view as he switches narration between a myriad of characters. With so many first-person narrators, I found it difficult to get a reliable view of the characters. However I think that this is one of Burgess’ strengths in the novel, truth became a subjective thing.

This book won the 1997 CILIP Carnegie Medal and I think deservedly so. Although I was sceptical at first, Burgess’ honest and sometimes brutal, social realist novel manages to educate the reader about the dangers of drugs but at the same time doesn’t talk down to the reader. I think that is one of the most important qualities of a book like this, any judgements I made about the characters were my own rather than being forced on me by the author.

Contrary to how I thought I would feel before reading Junk, I couldn’t put it down. I became so invested in these characters in a way that I really did not expect. As someone who usually navigates towards romance and fantasy in YA novels, I am so glad that I took the chance to read this and I hope others will too! It is social realism at its best, although it shows a side of life that many of us, I hope, will not find ourselves in, it is a world that is out there and sometimes it is a story that needs to be told. I think Burgess handles it well, navigating homelessness, drugs and prostitution without a heavy hand.  

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