How about we toss a coin?
Heads, it’s west and a lift.
Tails, it’s still west, but no lift.’
Road trip stories. There always seem to be an abundance of these about in film and literature. It makes sense; the road trip is a powerful metaphor providing excellent staging for a coming of age tale. Has it all become a little clichéd though? The last road trip story I read, “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green, I hated. I hated it so much I gave my copy away. I normally lap up Green’s offerings, but this book felt a little flat to me. Perhaps it was a bad example of a road trip story, or maybe I just got distracted by all that talk of equations, theorems and algorithms. At any rate, I didn’t feel that with Herrick’s book. I won’t go so far to say that this book is a masterpiece. I will say that it is well written and compelling in a quiet way. It is an accessible read of about 200 pages, and I managed it effortlessly in a couple of hours. Herrick does a couple of things really well that left me motivated enough to stay up a little later last night to get it finished.
The premise of the novel is quite straightforward. James leaves the comfort of his childhood home for a six week teacher-training experience in the country. He is accosted by Sophie, a bohemian woman with a mysterious past, who presses upon him for a lift. What unfolds is the predictable tale of their journey and blossoming relationship. The greatest strength of the story is in the characters, crafted skillfully by Herrick, they are familiar yet still manage to stand out in the reader’s mind. James is living through the post-teen years, barely managing to keep his parents happy and consistently doubting his ability to do so. Standing at two metres tall, he is a mother’s boy, over-pampered and clambering for the escape hatch. He is often clumsy and unsure about everything. At one point I struggled to understand how he even managed to bumble his way through life and two years of study at university. When he meets Sophie, a stunning 21 year old woman with street smarts and just enough brokenness to make her interesting, James is easily outwitted into giving her a lift. I had my doubts about this pairing early on in the story. Surely James is a little too nerdy to capture Sophie’s interest for long enough for anything fruitful to develop between them? However, Herrick seemed to have the balance between them right, with James’ gentle sincerity, softening Sophie’s heart enough to allow the dialogue to flow between them naturally.
The other great strength of the story is Herrick’s depiction of rural Australia. This is clearly a man who knows the nuances of country living; the hardships, isolation, narrow mindedness, the freedoms balanced with moments of simple joy. I could almost smell the roast of the day as it intermingled with the dust and the sweet odor of beer ingrained into the paisley carpet at the local pub. From gorging on blackberries, skinny dipping in waterholes, to goanna wrangling; this is a proudly Australian story that draws a captivating image of life in the bush.
Although Herrick made it work for him, I did find the style of narration a little irritating. He employs a switching style that begins with James’ first person present tense account, before moving into the past tense with a third person narration exploring Sophie’s world. A few times Merrick also jumps into the third person present tense from the perspective of James’ father and mother. Confused? I imagine that it may have some readers, (particularly younger ones) feeling a little alienated, and other readers annoyed enough to abandon the book completely.
“Black Painted Fingernails” is appropriate for use with an older Young Adult audience (16+). The ages of the characters definitely send it to the upper end of this category whilst also edging it into the realm of New Adult and Adult Fiction. As a whole, the story has broad appeal. Thematically, it is easy to relate to James’ quest for self discovery as he transitions from adolescence to adulthood. As a mother of three young children I found the story speaking to me on yet another level. It served to remind me of the transience of childhood and the certainty that that which is given to us will eventually need to be surrendered.
Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden