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After running away from their troubled homes, two English teenagers move in with a group of squatters in the port city of Bristol and try to find ways to support their growing addiction to heroin.

After running away from their troubled homes, two English teenagers move in with a group of squatters in the port city of Bristol and try to find ways to support their growing addiction to heroin.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a starred review of this "searing" account of teens who become addicted to heroin, PW wrote that the "unflinching depiction of the seductive pleasures as well as the insidious horrors of heroin will leave an indelible impression on all who read it." Ages 12-up. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a starred review of this "searing" account of teens who become addicted to heroin, PW wrote that the "unflinching depiction of the seductive pleasures as well as insidious horrors of heroin... will leave an indelible impression on all who read it." Ages 12-up. May Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This searing account of two young runaways' descent into heroin addiction and their faltering climb back out won England's Carnegie Medal and Guardian Prize for Fiction. Burgess's (Burning Issy) unflinching depiction of the seductive pleasures as well as insidious horrors of heroin will likely provoke controversy and heated discussion: some adults may feel that YA readers shouldn't be exposed to such unvarnished reality; others will recognize it as strong preventive medicine. Both would be conceding the power of the story in these pages. Self-absorbed Gemma, 14, bored with small-town life and her parents' strict rules, runs away to Bristol to join ingenuous, artistic Tar, who is fleeing an abusive home. They find lodging with some older youths in a squat until Gemma, and later Tar, moves in with her newfound "soul sister" Lily and boyfriend Rob, who introduce them to heroin. Though constantly insisting that they can quit any time, all become junkies, with the girls turning to prostitution and the boys to drug dealing, until Gemma makes a desperate bid for salvation. In telling the story through some 10 different voices, Burgess may well dazzle readers with the novel's flawless construction and his insights into character and relationshipsmost notably Tar's metamorphosis from loving, gentle naf into a copy of his violent, self-deceiving father. This is one novel that will leave an indelible impression on all who read it. (PW best book of 1998)
Children's Literature - Barbara Roberts
a mandate for changes in conduct to adults, Smack makes a weak case for social reform, although it provides a glimpse into a culture heretofore unknown by American readers. 1999 (orig.
To quote from the review of the hardcover in KLIATT, July 1998: Fourteen-year-old Tar runs away from his abusive, alcoholic parents to a "squat" (an abandoned building) in Bristol, and his girlfriend Gemma soon follows. They're taken under the wing of some older people, but when they meet a couple their own age they go off to live with them. Gemma is impulsive, immature, and a sensation-seeker, and when her new friends introduce her to heroin she takes to it eagerly. They convince the anxious, vulnerable Tar to try it too, and soon they're all addicted. Tar turns to stealing and Gemma to prostitution to support their habits. They try to quit but can't succeed, and it's not until Gemma's horror at her addicted friend's having a baby precipitates a crisis that their lives finally change, though Tar may never get clean. Reminiscent of Trainspotting, this hard-hitting, all-too-believable story conveys both the appeal and the awfulness of heroin. It's told in brief chapters narrated by various characters, including Tar, Gemma, their friends and their parents. First published in Great Britain under the title Junk and winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian prize for fiction, it includes a glossary of British terms at the end to help American readers. Smack delivers a powerful anti-drug message, though its tone and profanities restrict it to mature older teens. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1996, HarperCollins, Avon, 370p.,
— Paula Rohrlick
School Library Journal
Burgess has taken the toxic concoction of young adults and drug use and presented a chilling reality. This novel is about runaway teens "squatting" (inhabiting abandoned buildings) in Bristol, England. Heroin is the main character. The results of unleashed adolescent experimentation is the theme. The book is powerful and calculated, intent on affecting readers and shattering pat illusions. When 14-year-old Gemma follows her friend, Tar, to the city, she discovers a spirited life accentuated by drugs and free of authority. They soon take up with Lily and Rob, two young junkies. Lily is the personification of Lady Heroin. She's stimulating, erotic, irresistibly intoxicating, in the beginning. At the end, she's used up, wallowing in an almost unfathomable level of inhumanity, injecting smack into the veins between her breasts while nursing her baby. The descent of these young people as they plunge into the heavy-user category is brutally honest. Through first-person accounts, the characters present their circumstances and past experiences in a measured voice, devoid of warmth. Readers are kept at viewing distance. Tar alone is seen in a fragile and vulnerable light. Will YAs devour this novel? Absolutely. It is filled with punk culture, sex, drugs, and life on the edge. As repugnant and horrifying as the journey, the fascination of the feel-good, live-fast, die-young mentality has a sickly sweet lure. Smack is not a lecture to be yawned through. It's a slap in the face, and, vicariously, a hard-core dose of the consequences of saying "yes." -- Alison Follos, North Country School, Lake Placid, New York
Kirkus Reviews
In a Carnegie Medal-winning novel (under the U.K. 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) 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.
From the Publisher
A Carnegie Medal winner

A Guardian prize for Fiction

A Publishers Weekly "Best Children's Books of the Year"

A School Library Journal "Best Book"

Borders Books and Music "Original Voices" pick

An American Library Association "Best Books for Young Adults"

A New York Public Library "Books for the Teen Age" list pick

"Cuts to the bone. . . . This harrowing tale is as compellingly real as it is tragic." —Kirkus Reviews, starred

"This is one novel that will leave an indelible impression on all who read it."—Publishers Weekly, starred

"The book is powerful and calculated, intent on affecting readers and shattering pat illusions. . . . [B]rutally honest." —School Library Journal, starred

"Smack is filled with cool British lingo and interesting characters, all the while subtly delivering a harrowing message about addiction." —Seventeen

"[A] boot-in-the-gut look at British kids on the dole and drugs." —Toronto Globe & Mail

"[A] gritty, no punches-pulled chronicle." —News and Observer, Raleigh, NC

"Grim and cautionary novel" —New York Times Book Review

"Smack pulls no punches: Drugs can be fun. And Smack makes it relentlessly clear that fun comes at a vicious price. . . . It will leave you reeling." —Denver Post

"It does exactly what teenagers want a book to do. It tells the truth. It doesn't preach, It makes you think. . . .Smack is as addictive as the drug it profiles. You will not be able to put it down." —Voice of Youth Advocates

1"[A]n honest, unpatronizing, unvarnished account of teen life on the skids." —Booklist

"The book sticks with you." —Seattle Post Intelligencier

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613657129
  • Publisher: Turtleback Books: A Division of Sanval
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Pages: 370
  • Product dimensions: 4.26 (w) x 6.94 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Melvin Burgess is the author of many novels for young adult and middle-grade readers. Among them are Nicholas Dane, Doing It (a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age), The Ghost Behind the Wall (Bank Street Best Children's Book of the Year) and Smack (winner of Britain's Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize for Fiction, as well as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults). In 2001, he wrote the novelization of the film, Billy Elliot. Mr. Burgess lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, in England.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A boy and a girl were spending the night together in the back seat of a Volvo estate car. The car was in a garage. It was pitch black.

    "I'm hungry," complained the girl.

    The boy turned on a torch and peered inside a grey canvas rucksack behind him. "There's an apple."

    "Nah. Any crisps left?"


    Gemma sighed and leaned back in the car. She pulled a blanket over herself. "It's cold," she said.

    "Barry'll be here soon," Tar said. He watched her closely in the torchlight, frowning anxiously. "Sorry you came?" he asked.

    Gemma looked over and smiled. "Nah."

    Tar snuggled up against her. Gemma stroked his head. "You better save the batteries," she said in a minute.

    Tar turned off the torch. At once it was so black you couldn't see your own hand. Surrounded by the smell of damp concrete, oil and petrol, they carried on their conversation cuddling in the dark.

    Tar said, "Come with me."

    "What?" She was amazed, surprised. It had never occurred to her ... He could feel her staring at him even though it was too dark to see anything. In the darkness, Tar blushed deeply.

    "You must be crazy," said Gemma.


    "What have I got to run away from?"

    "Wait till you get home." The two laughed. Gemma had been banned a week before from seeing Tar. Her parents had no idea where she was that night, but they had apretty good idea whom she was with.

    "It'd be something to do," said Tar in a minute. "You're always saying how bored you are."

    "That's true." Gemma was the most bored person she knew. Sitting in class sometimes she felt dizzy with it, that she'd pop or faint or something if it didn't stop. She felt she'd do anything just to have a life.

    Still ...

    "What about school and that?"

    "You can go to school any time."

    "I can run away any time in my life."

    Gemma would have liked to. She wanted to. But ... What for? She didn't love Tar, she only liked him. Her parents, and her father in particular, were totally ghastly but he didn't knock her around. Not yet anyhow.

    Was being bored a reason for running away to the city at fourteen years old?

    Gemma said, "I don't think so, Tar."

    Tar lay still in her lap. She knew what he must be feeling because she'd seen it on his face so many times. Tar's heart was painted on his face.

    Gemma bent down close. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

    Tar had a reason, plenty of reasons. The latest were painted on his face, too. His upper lip swelled over his teeth like a fat plum. His left eye was black, blue, yellow and red. Gemma had to be careful not to touch his wounds when she stroked his face.

There was a noise at a small door behind them. Tar and Gemma ducked down out of sight behind the seats.

    "It's only me."

    "Bloody hell—you nearly killed me," hissed Gemma angrily.

    "Sorry. Here, put that torch on so's I can see where I'm going."

    Tar shone the beam over to a plump blond boy carrying a plastic bag. He grinned and came over.

    "I suppose we ought to have a secret knock or something," he said. "Here." He handed over the bag. Gemma poked inside.

    "It's only rolls and cheese. They'd have missed anything else," apologised Barry.

    "Didn't you get any butter?" complained Gemma.

    "No. But I got some pickle." Barry handed over a pot from his coat pocket.

    "Branston. Brilliant!" Gemma began tearing up the rolls and chunks of cheese. Barry had forgotten a knife; she had to spread the pickle with her finger.

    Barry watched Tar's face by the torchlight. "Christ! He really laid into you this time, didn't he?"

    "Looks like a bowl of rotten fruit, doesn't it?" said Gemma. "Not that you'd want to eat it."

    They laughed.

    "You haven't been turning the light on, by the way, have you?" asked Barry anxiously. "Only ..."

    "We said we wouldn't, didn't we?" demanded Gemma.

    "... only they might see it through the cracks in the garage door."

    "I told you ..."

    "All right."

    Gemma stuffed a roll leaking pickle into her mouth. "Wan won?" she asked Tar thickly.

    "Yeah, please." He beamed.

    There was a pause while Gemma pulled another roll in half.

    "When are you going?" Barry wanted to know.

    "Tomorrow," said Tar.

    "Got everything?"

    Tar leaned over the front seat and patted his rucksack. It wasn't that full.

    Barry nodded. He watched Tar eating for a second and then he blurted out, "But what about your mum?"

    Tar looked stricken.

    Gemma glared. "His mum's gonna be all right. She'll probably clear off herself once Tar's gone. She's only been staying because of him anyway; she's said that thousands of times, hasn't she?"

    Tar nodded slowly, like a tormented tortoise. Gemma glared at Barry and mouthed, "Shut up!"

    "Right." Barry nodded energetically. "Best thing you could do for her, clear off. She won't have anything to tie her to the old bastard then."

    "That's what I'm hoping," said Tar.

It got very cold in the garage later on. Gemma and Tar snuggled up together and wrapped the blankets around them. They kissed. Gemma didn't stop him when his hand glided under her top, but when she felt his hand sliding down her tummy she slapped his fingers lightly.

    "Naughty," she said.

    "Why not?" asked Tar in surprise.

    "Not here ..."

    She didn't mind him touching her there. But she was worried about spending the night together ...

    "I just don't want it to go any further."

    "You might never see me again after tonight," said Tar cunningly.

    Gemma shook her head.

    "It won't go any further, then."

    "All right."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 181 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2001

    Great book that tells the truth

    Its a great book. I love the way it switched back and forth from character to character, because you could see all of the caracters different points of views on things.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 11, 2001

    Smacks you in the face

    Smack hits hard with a real life view of herion addiction. At first glamorizing the feeling and lifestyle associated with the drug, the novel portrays the gradual downward spiral that users go into. Gritty, real, and brutally honest, I couldn't put the book down.

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