Book Review — Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

RazorhurstRazorhurst by Justine Larbalestier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a bit of a story attached to this review.

On my last night in Melbourne, I heard about Justine Larbalestier’s book launch and decided to stop in, keen to explore yet another little neighbourhood before packing off to Sydney.

I am so glad I did.

Razorhurst is set in Sydney during the ’20s and ’30s when organized crime was rampant. These were the days where firearms were outlawed, so people started carrying straight-edge razors instead. If confronted by the police, it was easy to excuse them as shaving instruments.

If you look at mugshots from the time (and I did; more on that later), you will see people with grotesque L- or X-shaped scars on their cheeks. Once a sign of shame, they soon wore them as a badge of honour. “If I have this scar, and I’m still alive, you can imagine what happened to the other guy.”

In short, I became completely engrossed with the history of this time. Sly-grog shops, prostitution, gangs, riots, and best of all: the two most feared and respected leaders during this period were both formidable women. I finished the book on my flight to Sydney, eager to explore the neighbourhoods where it was set.

It became such a deeper experience to see places that weren’t in the guidebook and to get a feel for a part of Sydney that I would have missed as just a regular tourist.

My days were spent wandering the now-gentrified streets of Surrey Hills (nicknamed “Sorrow Hills”) and Darlinghurst (from which we get “Razorhurst”). I even made it down to the former slums of Frog Hollow, where the temperature drops significantly, and if you close your eyes, you can almost feel the ghostly remains of the former inhabitants.

Imagine my shock when I’m getting purposely lost in Sydney and I turn a corner to find this staring back at me:

It was the same photo that Justine had pulled out in the reading and an image that has been with me ever since.

Turns out, it was a poster for the police history museum, which happened to have an exhibit on Sydney’s criminal past. Exactly about the time in which this book was set. Excited, I spent another day in there, poring over thousands of high-quality, first-hand images and accounts from the time.

Now, I guess I should talk about the novel itself.

You can tell the research has been done. (Not in the least because later I saw some of the source material). But the thing is, the world-building doesn’t beat you over the head like so many Fantasy novels I’m used to. The author had so much to draw on, but showed enviable restraint in letting the setting weave its way subtly into the story.

The language and general writing quality are there—it’s as ephemeral as the ghosts in the story themselves.

I loved the little page-long interludes which are short enough to give you a deep character insight but never overstay their welcome.

Razorhurst is a touching look into a hard, hard world, filled with broken, sympathetic characters. Don’t think dark like some of the recent Fantasy we’ve seen, but more along the lines of a grungy, dirty depression-era vibe.

Overall, a lot of pieces came together to make this novel work for me. It was a delightful read, and absolutely made my Sydney experience a once-in-a-lifetime set of coincidences which I’ll never forget.

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