Gemma: "My parents are incompetent. They haven't got a clue..."
Tar: "I know it sounds stupid, but it was like the flowers had come out for Gemma..."
Lily: "They did everything they could to pin me down...my mum, my dad, school..."
Rob: "We stood for a while breathing big long breaths of air. It was cold and pure...You could feel it inside you, doing you good."
How do these teens come to run away from home? To be users? Addicts? As their stories intertwine and build, SMACK never lets up the pace. It is a book about people, families--real and those constructed by young people with no one to turn to but each other. SMACK is a book about a drug and the hold it can have. Written directly for its audience of young people and unflinching in its honesty, SMACK is the teen book of the year.
SMACK is perhaps one of the most harrowing novels I've ever read. Raw, uncensored, and utterly believable, SMACK is both scandalous and brilliant. Author Melvin Burgess holds back nothing in his depiction of squatter life in 1980's Bristol; drug use, prostitution, theft, anarchy, and abortion are fully expounded upon. Since it's publication in 1996, SMACK has faced public outcries from horrified parents. I can certainly see why, but as someone who is wholeheartedly opposed to censorship* it only makes it more necessary that this book is read.
SMACK begins when 14-year old Tar makes desperate plans to run away from his dysfunctional family: an alcoholic father who beats him regularly and an manipulative, also alcoholic mother. After spending a few weeks in Bristol by himself and barely scraping by, he manages to convince his girlfriend Gemma to run away as well. While Tar had just reason to take off, Gemma is motivated by more petty reasons: stifling parents that impose restrictions that only encourage her to rebel more. The two teens are soon living together with a group of slightly older anarchists in a abandoned house. Although they smoke pot and commit vandalism, at this point the reader still has hope that everything will turn out alright for the wayward teens.
But from there, a quick series of events leads Gemma and Tar into a downward spiral of self-destruction. When Gemma meets Lily and Rob, two unflinchingly immoral teens, it provides the spark for the next few years of utter depravity. Lily and Rob are heroin users and Gemma and Tar are soon living with them and using heroin as well.
The pages fly by in a haze of one terrifying event after another: the four teens turn into hopeless addicts, characterized by a lack of reasoning and gross dependency on drugs to survive. While the characters convince themselves that they're happy, readers will be afforded a more clear-cut view of their lives which prove to be little more than a series of bad decisions. It is in this area that SMACK is most triumphant--Burgess brilliantly renders the complete psychology of a drug user. The teens are in denial about their drug habits and the extent to which they can deceive themselves is remarkable. Yet Burgess manages to convey a tale that rings true. He navigates the most sordid situations with skill--unwanted pregnancies, abortion, prostitution in order to finance drug habits, failed attempts to give up heroin, and jail time are all part of this book.
SMACK is narrated by alternating points of views, but while this technique provides insight into characters emotions, it's a bit distracting stylistically. I really couldn't tell the difference between the voices of the characters--they sounded the same to me.
But after reading this, I was devastated. This book is unforgettable, and it certainly makes you think. It's jaw-dropping and it's shocking and it's terrible but I'm glad that I read it.
Throughout the book, Burgress's tone is carefully nonjudgmental, but this has the same effect of distancing the reader. However, for me, this distance was necessary--I wouldn't have been able to read it otherwise. The characters in this book definitely hit rock bottom, and this is why SMACK serves as a cautionary tale. All in all, SMACK is an edgy, hard-hitting novel that certainly warrants much praise and legions of readers. It's as addicting as it's namesake. **
My Rating: 8.5/10. If you don't mind edginess, I can't recommend this enough!
*at the risk of this review turning into a rant, I'll just say that book banning infuriates me beyond measure. It's more a case of people trying to suppress opinions that differ from their own than anything else. [insert inflammatory judgment of book censors here]. Actually...I think I'll do a discussion post about this in the future!
**Okay, prolly not. But I read it in one sitting and I was ENTHRALLED, I tell you.
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