Razorhurst was written by Justine Larbalestier and first published in 2016. It’s historical fiction with supernatural elements, focusing on two girls who see ghosts as they struggle to survive in 1930s Sydney. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

It’s 1932 and the streets of Razorhurst are bathed in blood. The fragile truce between the two most powerful mob bosses – Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson – is slowly beginning to crumble and their enforcers frequently come to blows in the streets, finishing each other off with razor blades as carrying guns is illegal. It’s not surprising that with so much murder and violence, the streets are also filled with ghosts. Invisible to most, the haunt the places they died or people that they once loved. Only Kelpie seems to notice them, and that often leads to more harm than good.

Kelpie is a street urchin, orphaned and left homeless at a young age. Although she knows that ghosts usually aren’t to be trusted, she makes the mistake of following one’s advice in the hope of finding fresh food. What she stumbles across instead is a murder. Jimmy Palmer – Glory’s favourite lieutenant – has been brutally slaughtered. Although Jimmy’s ghost tells her who committed the crime, there is no way that Kelpie can come forward with this information. If she did, she’d have to explain exactly how she came across it.

Instead, Kelpie finds herself fleeing across Razorhurst with Dymphna Campbell – Jimmy’s girlfriend and Glory’s prized moll. Dymphna has already earned the nickname “Angel of Death” since her partners never seem to last long, and knows that she’s likely to be found responsible for the most recent murder. Dymphna knows that Glory’s hold is weakening and dreams of taking her place, yet most importantly she knows that she must survive. Meeting Kelpie seems to be fate as Dymphna has never encountered another who shares her supernatural power. Together, she knows that they can rise to the top.

Before I begin, a word of warning. While Razorhurst is advertised as being young adult fiction, I’m not certain that I’d agree with this. Despite the young age of the protagonists, it’s full of bad language, sexual references and violence. It’s also not written in a way that would be accessible to younger teens, as the story implies a lot of things that it does not show. For example, it doesn’t ever confirm that Dymphna is a prostitute on page and so this fact could easily go over the head of someone too young to understand the implications of this. Due to these factors, I’d certainly suggest that Razorhurst should be read by older teens and you should have a flip through it yourself if you’re thinking of giving it to anyone below the age of fifteen.

Anyhow, let’s talk about the positives first. Razorhurst paints a grim image of early 20th Century Australia, which is a subject that I knew nothing about prior to picking up this novel. It’s not a nice read as it’s filled with destitution and gang violence – a world where women are routinely objectified by men and the divide between rich and poor is unfathomable. It’s bleak and gritty, but also oddly compelling to read. The story is very fast paced, cramming a lot of action into a single day, and left me constantly on my toes to discover which characters would survive encountering the brutal razor men.

And how terrifying were these gangsters? There is something impersonal about just shooting people. The use of cutthroat razors is just infinitely more frightening. Many characters carried facial scars from previous encounters and the violence we see is swift and bloody. The types of people who become razor men are also pretty scary – ranging from Snowy who seems nice enough but will still kill on command, to the utterly terrifying Bluey Denham who just murders for pleasure. The common trait they all shared was that they were all unpredictable, meaning that I was never sure if the gangsters that the girls encountered were friend or foe.

Yet despite this, I felt that the structure of the story had issues. Even though the novel was relatively short, it wasn’t a linear tale. It was fast paced but felt as though it threw me into the middle of the story and didn’t really end. Ultimately, we don’t find out what happens to many of the characters following Glory’s party and it’s unclear how far the gang structure in Razorhurst has shifted. The book just kind of ends with the future of most of the characters still hanging in the air.

I also didn’t really like the vignettes between the chapters. Most of these were only a few pages long and were just used to exposit background details about various minor characters. While they weren’t as jarring as the similar chapters that I criticised in Smoke, they did still draw my attention from the main story and thus kept me from feeling fully invested in Kelpie and Dymphna’s plight. I didn’t care to read about where Neal bought his typewriter from, or how the Boxing Ghost passed away. These were frustratingly superfluous details that just left the book feeling more like a collection of short stories than a complete one in its own right.

I also wasn’t sold on the supernatural elements. While these sometimes add a unique twist to a historical novel, in this case they just felt tacked onto the tale. The ability to see ghosts only really aided the characters once, in identifying Jimmy’s killer, which was information that I’m sure they could have gotten some other way. Largely, it felt as though this book was two concepts that had been hastily stitched together, rather than being carefully integrated with one another.

However, I did find the two protagonists to be exceptionally well written. Kelpie and Dymphna were both strong in different ways and complemented each other greatly. I liked the way that Larbalestier showed how differences in social background affected everything about a person, with nutrition and education alone causing Kelpie to seem young for her age and Dymphna to seem far older. It’s nice to see a novel of this sort focusing on the female characters, as stories about gang warfare generally follow the men.

However, the same amount of development wasn’t really given to any of the rest of the characters. As I previously mentioned, this book does throw you in at the deep end and has a very large cast. Perhaps due to the short time frame I just couldn’t get invested in Dymphna and Neal’s sudden attraction, or follow the motivation of gang leaders. Just what exactly is Mr. Davidson’s motivation? How has he been in control for so long when he just seems to be off his rocker?

So, all in all, this is a hard novel for me to rate. While it did have its problems, it was an interesting story that focused on a period that I’d never seen in young adult fiction before. If you like your historical novels to have a splash of the supernatural, I’d certainly recommend giving it a go. You could certainly do far worse.

Razorhurst can be purchased as a Paperback and Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown | Arkham Reviews

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