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SMACK by Melvin Burgess

SMACK

By Melvin Burgess

Age Range: 13 - 16

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8050-5801-X
Publisher: Henry Holt

In a Carnegie Medal—winning novel (under the UK title, Junk) that cuts to the bone, Burgess puts a group of teenage runaways through four nightmarish years of heroin addiction. At 14, sweet-natured Tar leaves his small seaside town for Bristol to get away from his alcoholic, abusive parents. Gemma follows him to escape an infuriatingly repressive (to her, at least) home situation. Reveling in their newfound freedom, the two find shelter with a welcoming set of “anarchists” (punks) squatting in an abandoned building, then move on to live with Lily and Rob, a glamorous couple a year or so older who willingly share not just their squat, but their heroin too. Using multiple narrators, and only rarely resorting to violence or graphic details, Burgess (The Earth Giant, 1997, etc.) chronicles drug addiction’s slow, irresistible initial stages, capturing with devastating precision each teenager’s combination of innocence, self-deceit, and bravado; the subsequent loss of personality and self-respect; the increasingly unsuccessful efforts to maintain a semblance of control. Although the language is strong, Burgess never judges his characters’ behavior, nor pontificates; more profoundly persuasive than a lecture is the turn to prostitution to finance their habits, Tar’s casual comment, “If you don’t mind not reaching twenty there’s no argument against heroin, is there?” or a scene during which Lily nurses her baby while also probing her own chest for a vein to insert a needle. Based on actual people and incidents, this harrowing tale is as compellingly real as it is tragic. (glossary) (Fiction. 13-16)