Review: Razorhurst

RazorhurstIt’s a long time since reading a novel has made me gasp out loud, but it happened with Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst, a gripping, bloody, at times heartbreaking novel, set in Sydney’s inner east in 1932.

The term ‘Razorhurst’, as Larbalestier notes in the ‘Acknowledgements & Influences’ section at the end of the book, was coined and deployed by journalists at the whimsically named Truth newspaper, to describe a culture as much as a place in 1920s and ’30s Sydney, where razor-wielding criminal gangs waged war for control of trades in sly grog, illegal drugs, prostitution, gambling and extortion. The era, and particularly its infamous vice queens, entered the contemporary consciousness through Larry Writer’s award-winning non-fiction work, Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the razor gangs, and the TV show, Underbelly: Razor, that it spawned.

While Larbalestier cites Writer’s book among her influences, together with Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South, and Kylie Tennant’s Fouveaux, Razorhurst, as she describes it, is a ‘wholly imaginary book’ that manages to be thrilling, informative and moving all at once.

The narrative point of view in Razorhurst alternates between Kelpie, a Surry Hills street kid of indeterminate age who sees ghosts and, as she muses, hasn’t been looked after by the living in some time; and Dymphna Campbell, ‘best girl’ of local mob boss Gloriana (Glory) Nelson. The novel opens with Kelpie and Dymphna meeting over the bloody corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s erstwhile lover and Glory’s top standover man. The key suspect behind Palmer’s death is Glory’s arch rival Mr Davidson.

What unfolds over the following twenty-four hours makes up the novel’s intense and compelling narrative, as Dymphna takes Kelpie under her wing, and both young women struggle to distinguish friend from foe and survive the night.

Kelpie and Dymphna’s narratives are interspersed with short, sharp (no pun intended) chapters about minor characters, settings and vignettes — e.g ‘Standover Man’, ‘Kelpie’s Theories of Ghosts’, ‘Gloriana Nelson’s Doctor’ — that add colour and depth without sacrificing pace. Somehow Larbalestier manages to balance a light authorial touch, while conveying a substantial amount of information and nuance.

But the novel’s emotional punch comes from its characters: Kelpie and Dymphna are wonderfully rounded and convincing; but also engaging are writer and brewery work Neal Darcy; Mr Davidson’s Aboriginal standover man Snowy Fullerton; Old Ma, Kelpie’s esrtwhile carer; and Miss Lee, who taught Kelpie to read — not to mention Glory, Mr Davidson, and their respective entourages.

Also worth noting is that the violence in Razorhurst, while bloody and vivid, is neither gratuitous nor glamorous (unlike the violence in the Underbelly TV franchise). The  consequences of violence are shown to be brutal and heartbreaking. In a short chapter called ‘Funerals’, for example, Larbalestier writes:

     Hard to come back from burying your own child. They should not die before you. Parents die first, then children. That’s the natural order of things. Not in the Hills though. Not always. Sometimes it felt like not ever.
Flowers and a coffin and a nice little burial suit did not to a thing to ease the ache in your heart. That’s what the alcohol was for.
That and to put you a few steps closer to your own grave. Why live once your children were gone?

Razorhurst has won awards as Young Adult fiction for Older Readers, although I could see little to distinguish it from an adult read, apart from (possibly) the age of the main protagonists. Highly recommended.

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (2014) is published by Allen & Unwin.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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5 Responses to Review: Razorhurst

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’m always delighted to hear about books like this that draw young adults to reading, Angela. And I think it takes a deft hand to also make those books appealing to more experienced adult readers. This one certainly has a compelling premise, and I do like historical perspectives. Glad this one worked so well for you.


  2. Pingback: YA Speculative Fiction Round-Up: June – July 2015 | New Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

  3. Pingback: Extract from Razorhurst | susifoxblog

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