Title: Razorhurst: A Novel
Plot Type: Young Adult (YA); Historical Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings: Violence—4; Sensuality—3; Humor—2
Publisher: Soho Press (hardcover, e-book, audiobook—3/2015; paperback—2/2016)
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 citizens—particularly the men—have 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 women—she 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.
SUMMARY AND REVIEW
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.
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."