Book review

The Devil's Toenail by Sally Prue (2002)

It's that old conundrum - if the Devil himself were to pop up and offer you a bit of help with your earthly problems, would you really want it?

Is it really the Devil himself? Well, he doesn't stand there with pointed ears and cloven hoof, not in this story anyway. He's a voice inside Stevie's head, the voice of temptation.

Stevie has been bullied, as you will discover when you read this story. He has been bullied so badly that he has moved school, to make a fresh start. But still his relationships with the other boys in his group are soured by his previous experiences:

I liked Matt right from the start, but even on that first day Daniel would take him by the elbow and say things I couldn't quite hear; and already it was as if I was a bit of an outsider. But Daniel was just so cool, and Matt was just so nice; and so I hung around, like a spare part, until in the end, after weeks and weeks, Daniel said that if I wanted to be part of their gang then I'd have to pass a test. And he looked right inside me and saw that I didn't like fire; and so he said that I had to set fire to the bin in the library.

He's in danger of becoming a victim again, isn't he? Once you know why Stevie doesn't like fire you will begin to understand how hard he is going to have to work to make himself light that fire in the library wastebin.

Away on holiday for a few days with his unappealing family, Stevie finds a devil's toenail. It's just lurking there in the sand waiting for Stevie to pick it up:

OK, it wasn't really one of the devil's toenails: OK, it was just the fossil of a shellfish; but - well, Stonehenge is only a few lumps of stone, but it's still got this dark power, hasn't it?

Stevie needs all the help he can get. But is dark power really what he needs, and wants? Obviously, it's tempting ... but perhaps there is an alternative? The thing is, Stevie needs to work out for himself what the cost will be to him, for the Devil's help.

This is one of those books that slips from reality into fantasy, and you never quite see the join. What's real is the temptation to be the hardest one in the gang. After all, you can't be a victim if you are busy being a bully. I think you will find this story stays with you long after you finish reading it. Read it and see for yourself.

What can I read next?

Sally Prue writes lovely, thoughtful stories. Have a look at these:

If the slightly sinister quality of The Devil's Toenail appeals to you, I think you might also enjoy this one by Tim Bowler:

Or this one by Nicola Morgan:

Of course, if you like to drift about between reality and fantasy, you might like to look at anything by David Almond:

Have you heard of Faust? Or Doctor Faustus? He was a German necromancer and astrologer who apparently sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power. They are adult books, but here are three very famous interpretations of the legend:

  • Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
  • Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • Faust by J W Von Goethe

Finally, I know someone else who sold his soul to the Devil. See how lightly Philip Pullman tells this story:

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