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Book Review: Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

Razorhurst by Justin LarbalestierI’ve said many times to many people that I’m not a big fan of historical fiction unless there’s some sort of fantasy/SF twist and, as a general rule, this is almost always true. There have been a few exceptions, but mostly I find the genre boring without something else. It’s personal preference, I know plenty of people who love historical fiction. I’m just not one of them.

Justine Larbalestier’s new YA novel, Razorhurst, is historical fiction with that twist. The main character in Rarzorhurst is Kelpie, a young girl who can see ghosts. She lives on the streets of Sydney in the 1930s, when gangsters ruled the city.

At the end of the novel, Larbalestier gives a brief history of her interest in 1930s Sydney and that the events in the novel are basically fiction, but they’re taken from real events and some of the characters are also borrowed from history. But, unlike so many historical fiction novels (that I don’t know), Larbalestier puts more of her fiction into the novel than reality — which is part of the reason I like it.

Prior to reading Razorhurst, the only novel of Larbalestier’s I’d read was How to Ditch Your Fairy, which was a cute and lighthearted fantasy novel (almost urban fantasy). Razorhurst is about as far away from that as you can get.

Kelpie’s life isn’t easy, in fact it’s exceptionally hard — though she has a couple things going for her. She looks younger than her actual age, she can read, she knows the streets of the area she lives in (this Razorhurst area) and she can see and talk to ghosts. Kelpie doesn’t see the last thing as something that helps her, or at least recently she hasn’t. Growing up, she’d been raised by some ghosts and a couple of actual humans (Neal Darcy and a man named Snowy). But her interaction with people is rather limited and she feels, mostly, more at home with the ghosts than with people.

Kelpie’s luck holds throughout the novel, though in some ways it doesn’t hold at all. The world Kelpie lives in is ruled by two ruling gangsters, Mr. Davidson and Gloriana Nelson, and it’s by sheer coincidence that Kelpie finds herself in the middle of that world. She stumbles into the aftermath of a murder and runs into the most popular woman in Razorhurst, Dymphna Campbell.

Soon, Dymphna and Kelpie are on the run. Much of the novel is told from Kelpie’s point of view, but many other characters get chapters. We follow Kelpie as she tries to figure out how to survive and what to make of all these people (and ghosts) suddenly in her life. The story skips around and as we follow Kelpie we learn about her past in some chapters, before catching up with the present. Nothing’s neat or easy, which Larbalestier does an excellent job of illustrating throughout the novel. Characters do die and the story isn’t pretty, but it’s not meant to be.

I’ve read a couple of review that talk about how this doesn’t seem to be a YA novel, but I beg to differ. The story is mature, but it’s no darker than others I’ve read. But it does set itself apart from other YA novels — even with the ghosts, Razorhurst is a very real novel. It’s dirty and gritty, just like Kelpie’s world. But it’s also about found family, something that I really love (remember my Fast & Furious post?).

The heart of Razorhurst (and yes, there is one) is Kelpie’s struggles and how her world changes when she meets Dymphna. It’s about the importance of having people care about you, no matter what your circumstances are. It’s also tangentially about the importance of reading (one of the ghosts in Kelpie’s life taught her to read). It’s also about the differences between poverty and the upper classes, between the middle class and the lowest classes. It’s also about the idea that no matter how much money you have, crime is still crime and you can’t buy respect — and it’s kindness that really counts.

I don’t know if Larbalestier will write more, I haven’t read if there will be a sequel, but the story doesn’t need one (though it could have one). In some ways I hope it doesn’t, not because I don’t what to know what happens to the characters, because it seems more real that we don’t know. They don’t know, either, and neither should we. Much of the novel is spent waiting to see what’s around the next corner, how long the’re going to survive and not having all the answers makes the book all that much better.

I definitely recommend this book. It’s a fast, harsh, read, but it’s also clear that Larbalestier cares about her characters and we should, too. The story skips around, as we follow Kelpie we learn about her past in some chapters, before catching up with the present. It’s not a perfect novel, few are, but it’s a good book.

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