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Review of "Smack"

By Melvin Burgess
Avon Books, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 6th 2003

Smack tells the story of two teens who run away from their homes and become addicted to heroin.  It is set in Britain in the mid-1980s, and both the language and context are very much connected to that setting.  David, known to his friends as "Tar," has alcoholic parents, and his father is physically abusive.  The novel starts when David is 14, and he can no longer bear to live at home where both his mother and father cause him to be miserable in their different ways.  He runs away to Bristol, and starts out living on the streets, but is soon befriended by a older group of anarchists who "squat" un unused housing.  His girlfriend is Gemma, whose home situation is much less difficult -- her only real complaint is that her parents are conservative and strict, and she find it impossible to talk to them.  Nevertheless, she also runs away to be with Tar.  While Tar is shy and polite, Gemma is wilder and more interested in having fun, and it seems that it is her influence on Tar that leads them both to try new drugs and spend their time partying. 

As the two of them become more involved in an alternative life, they commit more crimes.  Both of them steal from shops, and after a couple of years, Gemma starts working in a massage parlor as a prostitute.  All their friends are in similar situations, and they all are addicted to heroin.  Their youthful enthusiasm and idealism disappears and they gradually admit even to themselves that they are simply junkies.  Two of the group die from overdoses, but this does not deter them at all.  When one friend becomes pregnant, they make an attempt to quit, but it is less than one day before they are shooting up again.  It is only by the end of the novel, when the characters are at the very end of their teenage years, that they are effectively forced into treatment programs that help. 

Each chapter is narrated by one of the characters, and the switch in perspective keeps the story interesting, and helps to balance the grimness of the plot.  This writing device also gives readers a better sense of each character's perspective, and helps to explain how they can make such bad decisions and deceive themselves so successfully.  Some American readers may find the English colloquial language hard to understand occasionally, there is a glossary that should explain most of the unfamiliar words.  The author, Melvin Burgess, writes in a note at the start of the book that it is partly based on people he personally knew and there are enough gritty details to make the plot seem true-to-life.  It is aimed at teen readers, although it could also be read by adults. 

While Burgess is non-judgmental in his tone, the story is effectively a morality tale about the dangers of drugs.  The most interesting aspect of the book is its insight into how people are drawn into such self-destructive choices.  For most of his life, Tar was angry with his father for his abusive actions and he felt sorry for his mother.  However, as Tar starts to understand his family better, the reader gets to see what led his father to act as he did, and how in some ways Tar is similar to his father.  Smack has a narrative and psychological complexity that makes it unusual as a young adult novel, and so I recommend it. 


© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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