Sunday 13 July 2014

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier is a YA historical fantasy set in Sydney in the 1930s. I have to admit, I didn't know very much about Sydney in the 1930s until I read this book but it certainly seems like it was an interesting period.
The setting: Razorhurst, 1932. The fragile peace between two competing mob bosses—Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson—is crumbling. Loyalties are shifting. Betrayals threaten.

Kelpie knows the dangers of the Sydney streets. Ghosts have kept her alive, steering her to food and safety, but they are also her torment.

Dymphna is Gloriana Nelson’s ‘best girl’, experienced in surviving the criminal world, but she doesn’t know what this day has in store for her.

When Dymphna meets Kelpie over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend, she pronounces herself Kelpie’s new protector. But Dymphna’s life is in danger too, and she needs an ally. And while Jimmy’s ghost wants to help, the dead cannot protect the living . . .
Razorhurst follows two main characters, both of whom can see ghosts: Kelpie, a street urchin and Dymphna, the most expensive prostitute in the city. Kelpie has survived on the streets in large part thanks to some ghost who have taken her under their wings, helped her find food and taught her general survival skills. Dymphna has survived mostly by being good at what she does and having the right appearance and upbringing to impress higher society types.

One of the things I found really interesting was the way the story was told. Alternating chapters were from Kelpie and Dymphna's points of view and in between chapters there were short, semi-omniscient mini-chapters (I'd call them sections but they did have headings, if not numbers) telling the story of someone's past, usually. If not a flashback to one of the main characters' pasts, then the back story of one of the secondary or incidental characters. As a story-telling method it worked really well. The reader gained information that neither Kelpie nor Dymphna knew, which fleshed out the plot and, in some cases, cast other events in a new light. Or gave us back story for the main characters which it didn't make sense to insert into the main narrative. In this way, Razorhurst is as much about the region of Surrey Hills more generally as it is about Kelpie and Dymphna specifically. I found it a really effective way to set the historical scene.

I enjoyed Razorhurst a lot. Larbalestier has a way of revealing information gradually that worked really well for me. There were some things we didn't learn about Kelpie until much later, which other authors may have foregrounded much sooner. I'd be more specific, but I don't want to ruin the reading experience for others. In part, though, I think this is also a reflection of how Kelpie hasn't had much opportunity — until the start of the story — to put her own life into context with those around her who aren't also living in the streets. For example, she doesn't even know how old she is at the start of the story and doesn't understand why people keep asking her that anyway. Dymphna, on the other hand, has always been very aware of her place in life and society and how to play the roles she needs to to survive. More acutely horrible things have happened to Dymphna, but she's also had more opportunities and knows how to make use of them. Kelpie, on the other hand, has mostly only had to worry about finding (barely) enough food and somewhere warm to sleep.

The ghosts are an important element in the story but not actually the driver of the plot in anyway. They're just another form of character and, at times, a challenge for Dymphna and Kelpie to overcome. The main plot is of the "who will try to kill us next and where can we be safe" variety, and the whole novel spans approximately twenty-four hours.

I highly recommend Razorhurst to pretty much everyone. Well, not younger-than-YA readers, since there's several short bursts of acute violence — the story does revolve around razor gangs, after all — but anyone interested in historical fiction as well as the more speculative element. I think the story will work for both types of readers, and for readers who don't usually read YA.

5 / 5 stars

First published: June 2014, Allen & Unwin
Series: No.
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBookstore
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

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