Aurealis Award (Best Horror novel)
Nominee for Gold Inky Award
Shortlist for the Norma K. Hemming Award
If you’re a fan of historical novels with a supernatural twist and are particularly interested in unusual settings, you might enjoy Australian author Justine Larbalestier’s Razorhurst. This novel is set in 1932 Sydney during the Razor Gang Wars, which was, apparently, a real thing.
The novel follows two characters, Kelpie, a malnourished sixteen year old street waif, and Dymphna, the “best girl” (read: prostitute) of female gangster, Gloriana Nelson (who does not appear to be a real, historical figure.) The two point of view character’s stories interweave when Kelpie is misled into entering a flophouse by a ghost who tells her she can find food there. Instead, what she finds is a body. The body of Dymphna’s latest boyfriend. Dymphna has bad luck with the gentlemen, or rather they have bad luck when they hook up with her, to the point that she has the nickname “Angel of Death.” Both Kelpie and Dymphna end up on the run from the police, Dymphna’s boss, and Gloriana’s rival mob boss, the creepy Mr. Davidson.
Initially, I struggled to get into this book. I’m not sure why. Once I got rolling in it, though, it sucked me all the way through to the bloody end. In fact, the night after I finished it, I ended up dreaming about the characters, so it’s safe to say that this is one of those books that gets under your skin and lodges in the dark recesses of your brain.
I have to confess, however, that I’m baffled by its award nominations. Not because I feel it’s not a strong book, but because I wouldn’t have classified it as “horror.” There are ghosts, sure, but none of them seem particularly spooky to me.
The Norma K. Hemming Award is an Australian award that “marks excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability” and… I didn’t really see a deep “exploration” of any of these themes. It’s the 1930s, so there are stratified classes. However, I can’t say that class issues stood out in any particularly strong way to me. Kelpie lives on the street, is starving, dirty, and uneducated, but her plight isn’t showcased in any way that made me think about the class system beyond the usual, “well, that sucks” way. Dymphna’s life as a prostitute is central to her character, but Larbalestier never truly paints out all the horrors of that life–they’re more implied than explicit, which is fine with me, but doesn’t exactly equal an “exploration” of gender or sexuality in my book. Kelpie and Dymphna are both women, but, uh, is that enough? I mean, they both have a gender, but they’re both cis gendered, so… Unless you count “seeing ghosts” as a disability, I’m not sure how this book ended up on this particular award shortlist. Perhaps it is difficult to find enough Australian authors tackling these themes.
Regardless, the book itself is interesting and the setting is likely very unique to North American readers. Since I never read the back of books before I start them, I was quite taken by surprise that the story was set in Sydney, because I have just that little sense of place and history, despite my undergraduate major in history. My college professors would be so proud.