Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier is not just another piece of historical fiction, this one involves ghosts, lots of them.
Razorhurst is set in Surrey Hills, a suburb of Sydney, Australia in 1932. During that time, according to a Sydney tabloid, The Truth, the area was full of “bottle men, dope peddlers, razor slashers, sneak thieves, confidence men, women of ill repute, pickpockets, burglars, spielers [swindlers], gunmen and every brand of racecourse parasite.” What a setting for a book! This was Australia's gangster period. The gangsters in Razorhurst used razors as their weapon of choice compared to the American gangsters who used Tommy guns, but both had deadly effects.
For one day in July (winter) Dymphna Cambell, the best prostitute and gangster moll in the region, and Kelpie, a homeless girl with lots of street smarts, actually cause a shift of power among the bosses ruling the streets. Oddly both girls can see ghosts and there are lots of them to see, signaling to the reader to take note: a lot of people died during this bloody time in Australia's past. Kelpie, who is much less sophisticated than Dymphna, interacts with the ghosts. The ghost of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna's latest boyfriend to end up dead, tags along with the girls shouting advice as to what they should do next. Dymphna ignores him and Kelpie tries to. Throughout the day the girls attempt to dodge the violence and corruption that swirls around them but end up in the very heart of it by nightfall.
As an educator one would think I would have the initiative to do a little homework prior to reading a book about historical events I know nothing about. Unfortunately I did not. If I had perhpas I would have enjoyed the book better, especially in the beginning when I was quite skeptical about it. This morning, as I was preparing to write this review I visited Larbalestier's website and found an interesting page about the things which influenced her writing this book. She has recently moved to Surrey Hills which led to an interest in the history of the area. She read a nonfiction book about the Surrey hills razor gangs. Like so often happens, one thing led to another, and she found information on some real characters who used to rule the hills. Though not strictly historical, none of her characters actually existed, many of them were based on real people or combinations of two people.
And the ghosts? These were not the scary, rattling chains type of ghosts, but dead people stuck on Earth for a period of time. Some of them were willing to interact and even teach the characters things. Some were so faded they seemed to be just a web of grey matter, there but not there. In an interesting way Larbalestier used the ghosts to carry the plot forward and backward in a way to demonstrate how we are all linked by our history and can't escape it no matter how hard we try.
I listened to the audio version of the book read by three Australian actors. Though I was not able to relate to the story on many levels I enjoyed the listening experience immensely. The only drawback for this American reader to listening vs reading the book was I didn't have the glossary, available in the back of the book. of Australian slang available to me to look up words I wasn't familiar with. As I listened to each disc I got more and more "into" the book and wondered and worried about what was going to happen next. Larbalestier's writing is clear and descriptive. her characters fairly crackled with life. She brought the setting alive in my mind's eyes.
Unfortunately, I hadn't read the book before we selected our Mock Printz reading list for the year or I would have lobbied to include it. Australian gang history and ghosts, that would give our teens something new and different. I ended up really liking the book and will recommend it to my library patrons. I hope this gets the attention and praise it is due from reviewers and award committee members.
Rating: 4 of 5 stars.
Because of the ghosts, I am using this book as part of the 10th R.I.P. Reading Contest.
Check out the details at The Estella Society. This is the second book I've read for this challenge which qualifies me for Peril, the Second.