“Razorhurst” (2014) by Justine Larbalestier

untitledMy last review was of a young adult fantasy novel so I’ve decided to follow it up with a young adult paranormal novel. I don’t read ghost stories very often (unless you count those written by my writing group) and, frankly, I’ve read very few novels by Australian authors (although Justine categorizes herself as Australian-American). And I’ve read even less about Australia. Luckily, with this novel, I was able to get a bit of a history lesson in addition to exposure to literature coming out of Sydney. I think it would also be appropriate to acknowledge that, as a fangirl, one of the reasons I read Larbalestier was because she is married to Scott Westerfeld, a favorite young adult author of mine.

Now, to the book in question. Razorhurst is set in the deadly Razorhurst neighborhood of Sydney in 1932. The novel follows two protagonists: Kelpie, an orphaned street urchin, and Dymphna Campbell, also known as the Angel of Death. Razorhurst is split between two crime bosses: Gloriana Nelson and Mr. Davidson – and the weapon of choice as suggested by the title of the neighborhood are knives/razors. Dymphna works for Gloriana Nelson and creates a plan with her latest man, Jimmy Palmer, to put her out of power. Then, without warning, Jimmy ends up dead. Kelpie discovers him. Taking pity on her, Dymphna decides to assume responsibility for the girl.

So where does the paranormal come in? Well, Kelpie sees and can interact with ghosts which is an unfortunate super power. She talks to them and while some of them torment her, they also keep her safe. She doesn’t have any personal haunters and instead interacts with ghosts that haunt people or parts of the neighborhood. She sees Jimmy Palmer’s ghost and converses with him throughout the novel. They provide her with wisdom about life but they also are fickle, tricky beings with only their own selfish motives at heart. Especially Jimmy. Most of the novel is spent trying to figure out if he is lying about who murdered him. While Dymphna isn’t forthright with the information, she too sees ghosts which creates a fascinating component of the dialogue that she has with Kelpie while Palmer is in the room. Larbalestier is a master of speakers just missing one another or talking on separate planes which really pulls readers into the novel.

One of the most engaging elements of the novel, however, is  Dymphna’s characterization. She is known as the angel of death because every person she “falls in love with” ends up dead. She originally works for Gloriana as a prostitute and it’s always slightly ambiguous whether she continues her duties even while she is with her other lovers. The reason I find Dymphna so intriguing is that she fits very well with a recent blog post I read about Feminism in YA. She’s a complicated character who experiences a lot of internal fear, pain, and sadness but who is very independent-minded and outwardly strong. She’s a fighter. She’s manipulative. She’s exactly what she needs to be in a world as dangerous as Razorhurst. She is very much a product of her environment. But like Celaena of Thrones of Glass or Kristin in Station Eleven, she experiences heartbreak, falls in love, and most importantly, demonstrates internal fear to the readers that she does not show to those in her external environment. To show fear in any of the situations above would be to forfeit her appearance and thus her life. I think this complicates all of the characters I’ve mentioned because the difference between how they should act to survive and how they actually feel adds a degree of relatability.

Kelpie is similarly a compelling character because of her lack of role models, her distrust of others, and the hardness of her soul that is a product of lack of love from the outside world. It’s amazing to watch her become more vulnerable as she learns to trust Dymphna without loosing the survival instincts she has learned throughout her short life. The book is technically told from her perspective and while Kelpie is young, she is worldly and street-smart in ways that make adults appear naive.

Overall, if you’re going to read this book for anything, read it for the characters. Both of them will steal your heart and make you wonder why there aren’t more like them in literature when we definitely know women like them in the real world.