Junk by Melvin Burgess made a big splash when it came out in 1996. Lots of people objected to its graphic depictions of drug use and declared it unsuitable for young adults, but it is now a classic YA novel with a hard-hitting message and is sometimes taught as part of the curriculum in schools.
It is no coincidence that Junk came out when it did. In the same year the film adaptation of Trainspotting (which was published three years earlier) came out, the musical Rent had its full opening and it was only four years before Requiem for a Dream stormed the Cannes Film Festival. All four works deal with recreational drug use among young people which then spirals into addiction and tragedy, and it was a serious concern in the 1990’s, with cases of AIDs on the rise, often associated by society with drug use and the lifestyle that sometimes accompanied it.
However, the idea of a Young Adult novel that dealt explicitly with running away, an anarchist lifestyle and drug use as (at the beginning, at least) an exciting experience was shocking. Junk is the story of a pair of teenagers, Gemma and Tar, who run away from home, and the other people they meet along the way. They end up living in an abandoned house with a group of young anarchists who regularly use drugs, and in the years that Tar and Gemma live there, they progress from softer to harder drugs and eventually to severe addiction, turning to darker and darker means to afford them.
Junk may be a depressing novel about addiction, but it is not without glimmers of hope. Tar may have an abusive home life but when he runs away, he finds inspiration and wonder in a mass of dandelions by the road. His gentleness is in contrast to his violent upbringing. Burgess writes chapters from different characters’ points of view and draws the reader into their stories. We care about all of them, and while their initial excitement at their new freedom is enticing, watching them fall into addiction is painful and Burgess gives us one character who escapes their addiction, with the possibility of hope for other characters. While he does want to show the dangers of drug addiction, he clearly also shows that there can be hope afterwards.
Junk is well worth a read, whether you want brilliantly-drawn teenage characters, an account of damaging drug addiction or a classic YA novel that has had a huge impact. Find out what all the fuss is about with Junk by Melvin Burgess, found in the BOOK ZONE at
If you want to know more…
Read Go Ask Alice, a book from 1971 which was published as a memoir by an anonymous author but is actually thought to have been written by Beatrice Sparks, the editor who published it. It is about a teenager who gets drawn into selling and using drugs. (BOOK ZONE 362.29092)
Try Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s iconic novel and the famous film adaptation by Danny Boyle, about a group of drug users in 1980’s Edinburgh (both in the BOOK ZONE at 823.91).
Learn more about drugs and the dangers of addiction in Dealing with Drugs by Anne Rooney (BOOK ZONE 613.8) and We’re Talking About Drugs (BOOK ZONE 362.293).
If you feel personally affected by any of the issues raised here, please make an appointment with our Welfare Team. There are many support services out there for people whose lives are affected by drugs. Contact FRANK, a confidential support service for drug issues (http://www.talktofrank.com/), or find out what face-to-face services may be available with the NHS drug support service(http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/drugs/Pages/Drugshome.aspx).