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Black Painted Fingernails by Steven Herrick
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Jun 15, 11

Read in June, 2011

With the toss of a coin James finds himself with company on his way to the country. Sophie with her black fingernails and slipping black dress is going as far as James can take her.

While James is leaving home for the first time, Sophie is returning after a long absence.

Along the way they’ll share laughs, burgers and secrets.

‘Painted Black Fingernails’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author Steven Herrick.

James and Sophie’s story is based on the assumption that you can always open up to a stranger because you’ve got nothing to lose by telling them your secrets. On the dusty highways and backwoods roads leading into the country Sophie and James trade banter and stories that slowly open them up to hard truths and old scars.

James and Sophie couldn’t be more different. James grew up in privilege, firmly attached to his mother’s apron-strings and benefitting from his father’s job as a surgeon. He studied hard in school and had few friends, and as he heads into the country for his first teaching job in a primary school, James reflects on all that pushed him out of home. He seems at once elated and terrified to be leaving the nest, while at the same time we begin to understand that the path he’s currently on is not necessarily of his own choosing.

James was a lovely and sweet character, if a little dull. He’s very sheltered and almost fragile – and despite being a bit of a drip, there’s a lot of him that’s relatable. He’s just beginning his adult life, and thrilled to be leaving his over-protective mother behind . . . but still terrified of the big, bad world and unsure of his place in it. Sophie is the perfect antidote to James’s fragility. By contrast she’s brash and funny, alluring and evasive. She has more secrets than James to share, and more to lose by going home.

Sophie looks at me for a long time before speaking. “Do you ever feel like screaming in public, but stop yourself, because of what people . . . ” She looks in the direction of the kitchen. “Because of what people you don’t know and don’t care about might think?”
“I’m scared of what everybody thinks,” I answer.

The story is told from alternating chapters between James and Sophie, and James’s mother and father whom he has left back home. I’m still not sure if the mother/father perspectives were necessary. Beyond better understanding James’s claustrophobic home life, I think these narratives were more intended to let young readers know how hard parents have it when they find themselves with an empty nest. Perhaps this is Herrick asking his home-leaving readers to take a care for those they’re leaving behind?

Two strangers in a car, one leaving home while the other is returning. A boy who is finally admitting what he wants out of life and a girl who needs to face the family she left behind. ‘Black Painted Nails’ is a wonderful little character road trip with an unfurling narrative and two compelling protagonist’s riding shot-gun.
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