Junk (novel)

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MelvinBurgess Junk.jpg
Front cover of first edition
Author Melvin Burgess
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Young adult fiction, realist novel
Publisher Andersen Press
Publication date
14 November 1996
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
Pages 278 pp (first edition)
ISBN 0-86264-632-4
OCLC 37873825
LC Class PZ7.B9166 Ju 1996[1]
PZ7.B9166 Sm 1997[2]

Junk, known as Smack in the U.S., is a realistic novel for young adults by the British author Melvin Burgess, published in 1996 by Andersen in the U.K. Set on the streets of Bristol, England, it features two runaway teens who join a group of squatters, where they fall into heroin addiction and embrace anarchism. Both critically and commercially it is the best received of Burgess' novels.[citation needed] Yet it was unusually controversial at first, criticized negatively for its "how-to" aspect, or its dark realism, or its moral relativism.[3]

Burgess won the annual Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's outstanding children's book by a British author.[4] For the 70th anniversary of the Medal in 2007 Junk was named one of the top ten winning works, selected by a panel to compose the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.[5] Junk also won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a similar award that authors may not win twice.[6] It is the latest of six books to win both awards.[a]

In the U.S., Henry Holt published the novel in 1997 as Smack[2] —another slang term for heroin.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel is told in the first person from various points of view; much of the narration is by Gemma and Tar, and takes place over the course of a few years in their lives. At the beginning of the story, Gemma is spending time with Tar, a gentle teenager who is planning to run away from home after suffering abuse at the hands of his father. Gemma is a rebellious 14-year-old and, despite having loving parents, decides to leave home and join Tar in Bristol.

In Bristol, Tar is introduced to Richard through Skolly, the tobacconist that took pity on Tar. Richard is a nervous, vegan anarchist, and he and his friends Vonny, a motherly character, and Vonny's boyfriend Jerry break into an abandoned house to squat there and invite Tar to stay with them. Tar is eager for them to meet Gemma as she arrives in Bristol; they are less pleased because they think Gemma is young and impulsive and would be better off at home with her parents. Gemma and Tar experiment smoking marijuana while they are living in the abandoned house. Tar phones his mother to let her know he's safe. However she makes him feel guilty for leaving her alone with his father, upsetting Tar greatly.

Richard holds a party in the abandoned house and Tar and Gemma meet Lily, who enchants Gemma with her confidence and carefree attitude. Gemma and Tar leave to stay the night with Lily and her boyfriend Rob. While they are there, Lily and Rob encourage Gemma and Tar to smoke heroin with them, and they do, believing that only smoking it won't get them addicted.

Tar and Gemma live with Lily and Rob for a long time, their heroin smoking habit turning into long-term addiction. They are joined by Sally, another heroin addict. Lily becomes pregnant and this inspires them into attempting to quit by going cold turkey, however they fail after only a day. Lily continues to inject heroin while pregnant. Lily, Gemma and Sally work as prostitutes in a massage parlour to fund their addiction. After getting arrested, Tar is sent to a rehabilitation centre. Once out, he declares himself clean, but after going back to the flat with Gemma, Lily and Rob, he takes heroin again.

The catalyst comes after Tar and Gemma are found with heroin again; Tar takes the blame and this time is sent to prison. Gemma, now pregnant with Tar's baby, allows Vonny to get in touch with her mother, who asks Gemma to come home and have the baby with the help of her parents. She agrees, and after 3 and a half years she is back at home. Her story ends with her clean and heroin-free, bringing up the baby without Tar because she doesn't trust him to stay off the drugs. Tar, once out of prison, slowly weans himself off methadone and settles down with a girlfriend, visiting his and Gemma's daughter every few months.

Characters in "Junk"[edit]

  • David "Tar" Lawson – protagonist. Abused by his father, he is never proud of taking drugs but becomes a heroin addict.
  • Gemma Brogan – a rebellious 14-year-old, Tar's girlfriend, who runs away with him. She becomes a prostitute and a heroin addict.
  • Richard – an anarchist and left-wing activist who helps Gemma and Tar find somewhere to live.
  • Vonny – motherly anarchist figure who lives with Richard and Jerry, and helps Gemma along the path to rehabilitation.
  • Jerry – boyfriend of Vonny, lives with Richard and Vonny
  • Lily – 15-year-old junkie who takes a liking to Gemma. An irresponsible heroin user who becomes a prostitute to support her addiction.
  • Rob – scruffy (16-year-old) boyfriend of Lily.
  • Sal – one of the junkie friends of Lily and Rob.
  • Mr & Mrs Brogan – Gemma's parents.
  • Skolly; a tobacconist who introduces Tar to Richard
  • Alan; Helen's boyfriend, both of them get arrested by the police

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

[clarification needed]

This novel has been adapted for the theatre by John Retallack (published by Methuen ISBN 0-413-73840-X).

It was made into a TV drama in 1999 as part of the BBC's Scene series for teenagers.

It has also been revised as of 2003 with the new title of Smack.

Often used as a thesis bases for drama (GCSE and A level) examinations[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alternatively, six authors have won the Carnegie Medal for their Guardian Prize-winning books. Professional librarians confer the Carnegie and select the winner from all British children's books. The Guardian newspaper's prize winner is selected by British children's writers, "peers" of the author who has not yet won it, for one children's (age 7+) or young-adult fiction book. Details regarding author and publisher nationality have varied.


  1. ^ "Junk". Library of Congress Catalog Record. Retrieved 2012-07-28.
  2. ^ a b "Smack" (first U.S. edition). LCC record. Retrieved 2012-07-28.
  3. ^ Susan Bickerstaff, "Exploring the Risks in Smack: Risky Stories in Young Adult Literature", Victoria Risko, ed., 57th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, [U.S.] National Reading Conference, 2008, pp. 107–118. ISBN 9781893591097. (ftp copy[permanent dead link] retrieved 2012-07-11)
  4. ^ Carnegie Winner 1996 Archived 6 January 2013 at the Wayback Machine.. Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 2018-02-28.
  5. ^ "70 Years Celebration: Anniversary Top Tens" Archived 27 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children's Book Awards. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
  6. ^ "Guardian children's fiction prize relaunched: Entry details and list of past winners". theguardian 12 March 2001. Retrieved 2012-08-01.

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Northern Lights
Carnegie Medal recipient
Succeeded by
River Boy