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Saturday, June 13, 2015

Justine Larbalestier: "Razorhurst: A Novel"

Author: Justine Larbalestier
Title: Razorhurst: A Novel 
Plot Type: Young Adult (YA)Historical Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2   
Publisher: Soho Press (hardcover, e-book, audiobook3/2015; paperback—2/2016)

     The New York Times reviewer labels this novel as "YA cross-over," meaning that even though the book is targeted at a late-teens demographic, adults will also find the story entertaining and engrossing. I certainly did!

     The story takes place in 1932 in the hardscrabble Surry Hills (aka Razorhurst) neighborhood in an alternate Sydney, Australia. Larbalestier bases her story loosely on the actual history of the area, pulling her characters from historical writings about that time and place. 

     Razorhurst gets its name from the gangs of mob-controlled thugs who roam the streets keeping order in the name of their bosses. Their weapons of choice are not guns (which are illegal), but long, sharply honed razors, and most of the citizensparticularly the menhave deeply scarred faces and limbs that testify to the violence that is a part of their every-day life. "You didn't have to kill your enemies. Just let them know you'd been there and weren't never going away. That scar lived on a mug's face for the rest of his life. He would always be marked, broken, less than. Or not. The hardest razor men had the biggest scars. Get cut up like that? and live? Now there was a man."

     The protagonist is Kelpie, a growth-stunted, streetwise girl who has lived wild on the streets for the past six years, ever since Old Ma, her protective foster mother, died. Although Kelpie is filthy, ill-clad, malnourished, and always hungry, she has managed to survive by avoiding eye contact with the living and by blending into her environment. Ever since Old Ma died, Kelpie has been raised by ghosts: guided and protected by the ghost of Miss Lee, a school teacher who taught Kelpie to read; by the ghost of Old Ma, who helped her learn how to prowl safely through the alleys and hovels of Surry Hills; and by Stuart O'Sullivan, a ghostly boxer who taught her self-defense skills. 

     Kelpie has been able to see and communicate with ghosts since she was a young child, but she has never been trained to control her ghost-seeing talent. Frequently, the ghosts of Razorhurst overwhelm her because as soon as they realize that she can see them, they mob her, screaming their death stories to her and making impossible demands. "There were ghosts everywhere she went. Most of them ignored her. But not all. A few of them helped her the way Old Ma had. Steering her towards food and away from bad men. A few of them did the opposite. Even so, ghosts were what kept Kelpie alive."

     The two mobsters who have divided Razorhurst between them are Mr. Davidson and Gloriana (Glory) Nelson. Davidson is a soft-spoken but vicious "gentleman" who displays his wealth and his luxurious lifestyle with an understated demeanor. Glory is his direct opposite: a former prostitute who arrays herself in gaudy red dresses and flamboyant jewels and converses crudely in the language of the street. They are alike, though, in their single-minded take-no-prisoners approach to maintaining their positions of power.

     Five additional characters round out the primary cast. 

   > Dymphna Campbell (aka Angel of Death): Gloriana's most prized prostitute (aka chromo), a femme fatale who came from a well-educated, high society family. She has the the class that Glory lacks and craves. "Glory…collected up Dymphna's hatches and relinquished the ones that she never said. She observed the way Dymphna dressed. The way she painted her face. None of it loud. None of it too red. Watched the way Dymphna drank tea. Practised it when she was alone. Not in front of…her men or womenshe wasn't going to have them laughing at her." Dymphna's "Angel of Death" nickname comes from the fact that all of her boyfriends (aka thuggish protectors) have died within weeks, sometimes days, of hooking up with her. "Every time one of them died, another one stepped up. As if being with Dymphna was the official trophy for their masculine domination of the worst parts of the city." Dymphna can also see ghosts, but she has never admitted that to anyone.

   > Jimmy Palmer: Gloriana's toughest standover man (razor man) and Dymphna's current protector, who meets his death in the opening pages and then follows Kelpie and Dymphna around in his ghostly form for the rest of the book.

   > Bluey Denham: The scariest man in Razorhurst. He steps up to take Jimmy's place as Gloriana's top thug. He is a sociopath who feels no pain and revels in the blood and gore of violent death. "When Bluey Denham said to nick off, Kelpie nicked. He was the baddest of all the bad men."

   > Neal Darcy: Eldest son of a fatherless family who supports his mother and siblings by working in a brewery by day and writing stories by night. He joins up with Kelpie and Dymphna because he is attracted to Dymphna and because he senses an adventure that he can add to his collection of stories. "None of Neal Darcy's stories set in Surry Hills had happy endings. They ended with despair or death. Because that's what the Hills did to people…Death was death and love was love…In Surry HillsSorrow Hills as so many of the older folks called itone often led to the other. The two could not be separated."

   > Snowy Fullerton: Mr. Davidson's toughest standover man. Snowy is a tall, dark-skinned Aboriginal who gets his nickname from his bleached-white curly hair. He has been keeping an eye on Kelpie ever since Old Ma died. "He was raised by Old Ma, like her. Old Ma had told Kelpie she could trust him. So she did."

     Larbalestier tells the story in the limited third-person voice alternating the perspectives among all the main characters. Additionally, she includes background chapters that flash back to scenes from the characters' pasts. Each chapter is a brief vignette, generally between two and four pages in length. This technique makes the story a mosaic of textures, colors, and shapes that intensifies the fascinating setting and gradually develops the intriguing characters. On her web site, the author explains, "The short chapters were like side streets that take the reader into the past of each character. It built a mosaic of motley personalities." The dialogue is salted with pungent soundbites of Aussie slang of the times (all defined in a glossary at the end of the book). You can guess this one from context: Kelpie "crept past the pile of bricks that was the dunny leaning against the fence. Smelled like the night-soil men had missed this one."

     Justine Larbalestier is an Australian young adult author. She is best known for the MAGIC OR MADNESS trilogy: Magic or Madness, Magic Lessons and Magic's Child

                         SUMMARY AND REVIEW                         
     The notoriously bloody history of a mob-run Sydney, Australia neighborhood is fertile ground for this historical thriller with a paranormal twist: two girls' ability to see the many ghosts haunting Razorhurst.

     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. 

     In the opening chapter, Kelpie is goaded by an bullying adolescent ghost to sneak into a rough boardinghouse to steal an apple, but what she finds instead is the fresh aftermath of a murder. (You can read this entire scene by clicking on the excerpt link at the end of this review.) What Kelpie finds is Dymphna, standing in shock over the razor-slashed body of Jimmy Palmer, who has been sliced and diced to a bloody death. When the police pound on the door, Kelpie drags Dymphna away to hide out at the Darcy house, where Neal takes a shine to Dymphna and agrees to keep them hidden.

     The rest of the story plays out over the next day or so as the two girls try to stay alive long enough to decide who will help them, who will enslave them, who will hurt them, and who will kill them—but those designations change from hour to hour as power shifts cause people to make new alliances and betray former friends. Both girls are alone, and both keep wondering "Why did they all die? Kelpie knew the answer wasn't because someone slashed their throat open or because there wasn't enough food or because they got sick. Dymphna meant why did she keep losing people she cared about. Kelpie wanted to know the same thing. Why had her parents died? Why Old Ma? Why did ghosts fade away? Why wasn't Old Ma still around to help her? Or Miss Lee? Why did they all—living or dead—abandon her?"

     The short chapters and multiple viewpoints underscore the chaos of Kelpie's life. Until now, she has lived an invisible life, skulking from one abandoned house to another, begging for scraps of food, scavenging the filthy gutters for dropped coins, and hiding from the cops and from Welfare, either of whom would certainly drag her off to an orphanage. She keeps her mouth shut and her eyes down to make herself invisible to bad people and to avoid alerting the ghosts that she can see them.

     The ghosts—seen only by Kelpie, Dymphna, and other ghosts—float in and out of the story. They are generally tethered to a particular place or person and are in various stages of disintegration. The most vocal (and humorous) is Jimmy, who constantly comments on the action and insists on giving Kelpie all sorts of advice and information, some of it helpful, but some misleading. The first thing Jimmy tells Kelpie is that Snowy killed him, a claim that Kelpie (at first) refuses to believe. The ghosts add texture to the story with their futile attempts to re-enter the land of the living and their obsessive need to share their death stories. 

     The author is masterful in her depiction of Razorhurst, building up our view of the neighborhood chapter by chapter as Kelpie and Dymphna encounter new landmark locations, back alleys, and crowded main streets. "Kelpie let Dymphna pull her across [Elizabeth Street]. They dodged the motor-cars and people, and Kelpie dodged the few stray ghosts always in the middle of the road, dead from a motorcar or a tram, spending the rest of their existence with the things that killed them whistling through them every day. Kelpie looked towards Central [Station] and wished she hadn't. From this side there were even more of them, weaving so close together they looked like storm clouds."

     A major theme deals with Kelpie's inability to figure out what makes a person "good" or "bad"or both. For example, Kelpie knows that Snowy has killed people, but she also knows that he has helped her out many times over the years. So…Is he good or bad? Should she trust him? Always? Or just sometimes? And what about Jimmy, who has also killed many men? He claims to want to help Dymphna, but some of his advice seems absolutely wrong. What to do? Who is good and who is bad? Can anyone be trusted all of the time? Dymphna eventually realizes that she "was going to have to explain to the girl that you could be a killer and a good person at the same time. You could kill no one at all and be worse than Satan."

     Kelpie also worries about the meaning of "grown-up," particularly when she finally learns the true ages of her various companions. "Darcy and Dymphna seemed old to her. They were grown up and she wasn't. They weren't part of the same kind of people as she was. She was little. They were big. Welfare would never pull them aside for walking down the street when school was on. They would never be asked where their parents were…Jimmy Palmer was older than the doctor even though he looked younger. Kelpie didn't know what to do with…any of this information…She felt like…She didn't know how she felt. Her world wasn't the way it had been. She wasn't who she thought she was."

     My favorite chapter is entitled "Newspapers," which sums up Kelpie's life in just over one page. For most of her life, Kelpie collected newspapers because they could be used in so many helpful ways: to wrap up in during cold weather, to line your shoes (or wrap your feet if you didn't have shoes), to cover the hard ground where you slept, to wipe your nose (or your arse), to soak up blood, and to wrap up useful things found on the street. But then Kelpie meets the ghost of Miss Lee, who teaches her that newspapers are full of "strange and wonderful things" that she can read about, thus giving Kelpie a brand new window on life. Kelpie's only regret is that "The only thing you couldn't do with newspapers was eat them."

     I am always searching for fresh and inventive new worlds, and in this book, I found one that captured my interest right from the beginning. The ending lends itself to a sequel, so I am hoping that Larbalestier will write one—perhaps turn this into a trilogybecause I can't stop wondering what will happen next to Kelpie and Dymphna. I highly recommend this novel for anyone who loves a suspense-filled plot with fascinating characters interacting in a unique and unusual setting. Don't worry about the YA label. This is adult-level content that is so beautifully written that it will capture your interest immediately. Click HERE to read an excerpt.

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