Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Sydney’s deadly Razorhurst neighborhood, 1932. Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson, two ruthless mob bosses, have reached a fragile peace—one maintained by “razor men.” Kelpie, orphaned and homeless, is blessed (and cursed) with the ability to see Razorhurst’s many ghosts. They tell her secrets the living can’t know about the cracks already forming in the mobs’ truce.

Then Kelpie meets Dymphna Campbell, a legendary beauty and prized moll of Gloriana Nelson. She’s earned the nickname “Angel of Death” because none of her beaus has ever survived knowing her. Unbeknownst to Kelpie, Dymphna can see ghosts, too, and she knows that Gloriana’s hold is crumbling one henchman at a time. As loyalties shift and betrayal threatens the two girls at every turn, Dymphna is determined not only to survive, but to rise to the top with Kelpie at her side. — [X]

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier was every bit as interesting as I had expected it to be, so I’m more than a little annoyed at myself for taking this long to read it. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, and part crime thriller, you’d think Razorhurst would run into the problem of mis/handling way too many things, but you’d be wrong. Larbalestier not only blends these genres together with skill, but she also manages to gives us various characters’ POVs, backgrounds, and (seemingly) random anecdotes, without leaving the narrative all jagged and messy. I feel like “skilful” doesn’t quite cover how well this aspect of the novel was done.

There are, of course, many other things to recommend this novel. Starting with the characters. The story mainly follows Kelpie–a malnourished, homeless girl who can see ghosts–and Dymphna, a poised girl, working for Glory Nelson as a sex-worker, and nicknamed “The Angel of Death” because of how none of her boyfriends live past a few months by her side. Their paths cross when Kelpie is lured into a house–tempted by the possibility of apples, funnily enough–only to find Dymphna standing over the mutilated corpse of her latest bodyguard/beau, Jimmy. They are also joined by Jimmy’s ghost because why would things get easier from that point on? The two girls’ fates are entwined then, each one wishing to survive the consequences of this hit, each one needing a companion, but neither really being in a position to trust the other, or even be in a position to be trusted. It’s a fine balancing act, bringing readers on the brink of something really tense and then safely guiding them away. Yet another thing that Larbalestier handled pretty spectacularly. And I get that this means the pacing of the plot sort of lags at points, but given that the asides were so interesting, I didn’t mind.

Speaking of characters, since the blog is all about “S P A C E” this month, it’s only right I talk about how incredible the setting is. Surry Hills, according to Google Images, looks like this now:

According to Larbalestier’s notes at the end, it’s a pretty gentrified neighbourhood and has at least one hairdresser per block. However, in 1932, when this novel was set, it was kind of run by razor gangs. Since the police had placed severe fines for anyone caught with concealed firearms, razors and disfigurements became the norm. And every turn that Dymphna takes, every ghost that Kelpie interacts with, reminds us of the place they (and a lot of ghosts) reside in. The many ghosts that we encounter in the novel also serves as a reminder that violence doesn’t end in death, it keeps living on, mutated in horrible ways. Also, in a way, Larbalestier has presented readers with the ghost of what used to be Surry Hills and just like any other ghost, it is haunting and strange and yet so, very real.

My favourite thing about Razorhurst is the way that it discusses feminism, humanity, and agency within a system that is determined to give its people the worst possible choices. I don’t know if any other book does it so well, simply because the novel isn’t there to offer answers. It is there to complicate our own ideas on these issues, force us to look at the murky grey areas. Kelpie and Dymphna and every other character we meet along the way has an understanding of life and death that keeps us thinking on their words long after we’ve put the book down. Razorhurst is that kind of book–it haunts you and you’re surprisingly cool with it. Definitely recommended.

2 responses to “Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

  1. I read a lot of gems later too. I only belatedly realised that I was born in Darlinghurst but don’t live there, so learning about the history behind Razorhurst and Surry Hills was fascinating.

    • I was so late to this party, though. Larbalestier’s next book is already coming out. And wow, that *is* fascinating!

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