A Smack In the Face: Ordinary Teens Struggling With The Pitfalls Of Urban Life

Melvin Burgess, Smack. New York, NY: First Avon Tempest Printing, 1999.

Picture taken from harpercollins.com
"Sometimes maybe you need an experience. The experience can be a person or it can be a drug. The experience opens a door that was there all the time but you never saw it. Or maybe it blasts you into outer space. This time it was Lily and Rob and Gemma spending all that time to make me feel one of them, but it was the drug too. All that crap--about Gemma leaving me, about Mum and Dad, about leaving home. All that negative stuff. All the pain...It just floated away from me, I just floated away from it...up and away..." -- Tar (Smack, p. 132)

Book Review

Melvin Burgess's Smack is an excellent tragic drama about a set of young people in modern England whose lives are drastically impacted by the results of their friendships. The story examines complex themes, such as teen-parent relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, pre-marital sex and teenage pregnancy and parenthood, through the eyes of its characters. While the text lacks a certain elegance as a result of the writing style, it is nonetheless quite eloquent in stating its arguments. Each of the characters has a say in the reader's perception of the story and that character's persona.

The story builds around two characters: Gemma, the daughter in a middle-class Brit family whose strict parents drive her to run away, and Tar, the son of abusive alcoholics and also Gemma's boyfriend. The two move into a squat in Bristol with a group of young adults and become immersed in a world of punk rock. Along with listening to Lurky, The Only Ones, and The Buzzcocks comes an urban scene of destructive mischief, crazy parties, sex, and drugs. A free and carefree world, right? But it is only a matter of time before Tar must face the lyrics of his own music: "ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn't've fallen in love with?"

Once Gemma leaves Tar for the heroin crowd, Tar expresses his own self-consciousness: "Sometimes I feel like I'm some kind of organ plucked out of a living beast. Every little twitch shows up; it's like having to confess all the time. I can make my face go ever so still if I want to but then I forget and it starts twitching away and everyone knows exactly what I'm feeling every second. I just wanted to bury myself about a hundred million miles under the ground" (p. 125). It's this sort of character introspection that really gives this book its gravity--with these intimate confessions from all of the major characters, you, as a reader, will leave this book with a whole set of new relationships.

The plot develops further when Tar follows Gemma into the world of drug addiction, chasing his lost relationship. They've added Lily and Rob to their troupe-- two no good, long-term addicts who are fleeing problems in Manchester. Coping with addiction, Tar and Gemma are forced to hide their problems from friends, family, and the police. Before too long, they become severed from the outside world. Now, their dealers have OD'd, they're out of money, and there's a baby on the way. With a last ditch effort they head to the hills to try and break their habit. But it seems like the demons of addiction may be too strong for most of them. As Rob admits, " Personally I was determined to have a real go at it. I had a little package in my pcket no one knew about, and I almost thought about throwing it away, but I didn't want to muck things up. I'm lousy at that coming down bit. I'm all right after that but I do need something to let me come down slowly..." (p.193-4). Now unable to rely even on their friends, Tar and Gemma revert back to heroin use, allowing a puff of smoke to take all their troubles away...or so they think.

However, Smack is not merely a drug story or coming-of-age story. It is a compelling realistic drama about complex decisions and consequences as well as the impact of lifestyle on personal development. The novel is highly useful in teaching students to engage difficult decisions in complex ways that move beyond bumper stickers (i.e. "Just Say No") and engage the consequences of making choices that can lead to complex and inescapable addictions. It is also useful in teaching about writing in multiple voices and in engaging a particular character or set of characters by getting "inside the character's head."

Smack was originally published in 1996 in England under the title Junk . Burgess won the 1996 Carnegie Medal for the piece. Junk has also been adapted for the theatre and made into a television show in Britain.

Recommendations for Teachers

The novel Smack is written through the viewpoints of many different characters. Through this technique the reader is able to understand each character on a more personal level, realizing how their thoughts contribute towards their actions. Teachers can use examples from this text in order to teach students the technique of writing from the different view points of different characters. The teacher can discuss with their students how a certain understanding of a character can change the student’s personal view on the character. For example, are you more empathetic towards Gemma after hearing her side of the story, or do they think she was just being immature? Also, teachers could ask the students what they think of the character Lily before reading her personal take on the situation of everything. Is she someone who you can sympathize with or do you see her as an irresponsible teenager hooked on drugs?

Teachers can also have students write short essays written through a certain character's point of view. This will allow the students to write as Melvin Burgess did, constructing multiple perspectives to form a story. The students will have to become that character in order to fully grasp how the character feeling.

It is important for the students to understand that “Smack” is about more than a bunch of teenagers hooked on drugs. In order to fully grasp the characters, teachers should ask the students to bring in a prop which would represent their character. However, the catch is that the student can not bring in anything that would represent the character in a negative way. The student can not bring in anything that would represent the character’s use of drugs, desire to party, etc. For example, if a student were to represent Tar, they could bring in a dandelion. If a student were to represent Lily, they could bring in something that would have to do with magic which would represent the magic that Lily seemed to possess. Having the students do this exercise will help the students look past the drug use and see that there is more to the characters.

A Warning for Teachers:
Smack features a lot of disturbing content and needs to be read from a critical standpoint. This book has a lot of sexual, drug-related, and criminal content and it is very graphic! If you are teaching in a conservative area it may not be practical to teach this book despite its literary acclaim.
Helpful links for Teachers:
  • EncompassCulture A UK based site for YA reviews (includes suggested activities!)

About Melvin Burgess

Picture taken from www.melvinburgess.net

Melvin Burgess was born in Sussex, England in 1954. He spent most of his early years as a dreamer, describing himself as a poor student who didn’t fully discover his love for writing until his twenties after landing a job at the local newspaper. Burgess achieved his first literary success with the publication of The Cry of the Wolf in 1990. Since then he has published nearly twenty other young adult novels and has been awarded the Carnegie Medal, the Lancashire Children’s Book Award, and the LA Times Best Young Adult Book of the Year. Many of his books, including Smack, have been adapted for drama and television (see below: Multimedia)

Burgess now lives in Manchester with his two children, Oliver and Pearl. In his spare time he holds lectures and workshops at schools across the UK. He also does Norse mythology storytelling.

Although Burgess has received both praise and criticism for the graphic content of his novels, he still caters to the Young Adult audience:

“What is usually called teenage fiction is really for people aged up to fourteen or so. Even then, people are supposed to buy few books. But what about those from fourteen up? That's the age group we really think of as teenagers. Of course at that age, people read adult books, but there are almost no books aimed directly at, or about, people in the middle and later years of High School and up. There are books for grandparents, babies, toddlers and grown-ups - why has this group been left alone?” – Melvin Burgess.

-- All biographical information was taken from Melvin Burgess' homepage

Other Young Adult Novels from Melvin Burgess:





Blood Tide
The Ghost BehindThe Wall
Billy Elliot
Lady -- My Life As A Bitch
Doing It


Below is an interview with Melvin Burgess on The Book Show.

Below is the introduction to the first episode of the television adaptation of Smack (aired on BBC 2).

Additional Resources

Melvin Burgess Links:

Heroin and Addict Information Links:

The "Smack Scene" Links:

Bands Featured Links:

Watch "Ever Fallen In Love" by The Buzzcocks live in 1978!
For more information on this novel, listen to Smack.mp3

--Chris Williams, Greg Hendricks, and Kim Straub