By Justine LarbalestierYoung Adult Allen & Unwin
This rollicking, blood-soaked story of 1930s Surry Hills blends gangster drama with the supernatural – in the tradition of Ruth Park and Kylie Tennant.
With lively prose and meticulous historical detail, Justine Larbalestier brings the badlands of Surry Hills (or, Sorrow Hills, as the locals call it) to thrilling life. The fragile peace between two mob bosses – Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson – is crumbling. Canny street urchin Kelpie and beautiful, ambitious prostitute Dymphna (Glory’s ‘best girl’) are plunged into the thick of the action after they meet over the corpse of Jimmy Palmer, Dymphna’s latest boyfriend.
Ghosts have kept Kelpie alive, steering her to food and safety, but they’re also her torment. Now Jimmy wants to help save the pair, but the dead cannot protect the living – and Dymphna is determined not to recognise ghosts.
Larbalestier intersperses the action – which follows Dymphna and Kelpie over 24 frantic hours – with chapters that flesh out their backstory and motivations, and add historical context, like the reason why these gangsters fight with razors rather than guns.
Razorhurst is complex and fast-paced, with nuanced characters and an intelligent rendering of a violent underworld where privilege is hard-won and fiercely defended … and a vast underclass make their own rules.
Kelpie is a stray, negotiating the streets of Razorhurst with only the dead to guide her. Over a single day that begins and ends with murder, Kelpie is dragged into a bloody turf war between rival mob bosses Gloriana Nelson and Mr Davidson.
This structurally complex novel moves at a pace that allows no room for uncertainty, and Larbalestier never falters. She deftly paints a moment from Australian history rarely, if ever, seen in young adult fiction, and the result is clever, original and extremely well executed.
Tommy was a talker and didn’t much like the other ghosts, so he was forever talking to Kelpie. That’s how she divided them up: talkers and silent ones. Most ghosts were silent. Most ignored the living. Kelpie thought that was just as well.
She wished Tommy was a silent one. She wished she hadn’t listened.
Most ghosts haunted a person or a place. Pimply Tommy had Belmore Lane. He didn’t like the word haunt because it implied he had a choice in the matter, but no matter how many times he tried, he could not leave. Tommy had been born in that lane, he had been killed in that lane, and that kept him there for eternity, looking at the back yards of houses and the rear entrances of warehouses and factories, unable to set foot in either.
It made him cantankerous and tricksy.
‘Barefoot again, eh?’ Tommy said, his voice cracking on the word barefoot. ‘And this the coldest winter in forever.’
Tommy’s world was so constrained he noticed all the changes. Because he was a ghost he could see in the dark and though he could not leave that all-too-small lane, he could hear and smell further than a human. All ghosts could. Tommy knew everyone’s business.
‘Where your shoes?’
Kelpie’d taken them off once she was sure Miss Lee had faded. Miss Lee was a ghost too. Had been a ghost. She’d looked after Kelpie, which was why Kelpie’d worn shoes – to please her. They pinched Kelpie’s toes and besides, the soles of her feet were tough as any shoe. Cold didn’t bother her as much as shoes did.
‘Here to see your boyfriend?’ Tommy asked. ‘You do know every girl in the Hills is after that ugly mick, don’t you?’
Neal Darcy was not ugly and he was not her boyfriend. Though she was there to see him. She hadn’t once since Miss Lee had gone and he’d promised he was going to show her how to use his typewriter. Her stomach growled.
‘Hungry, eh? Darcys’ ain’t got no food. Piles of apples in there, though.’ Tommy pointed at Mrs Stone’s boarding house.
Mrs Stone’s was not what Miss Lee would have called respectable. It was what Kelpie’s other living friend, Snowy, called dangerous. Hardly a one of the men who lived there didn’t have an L- or an X-shaped razor-etched scar on one side of his face. Hard men, Snowy called them. He’d know. You’d have to be mad to venture in uninvited.
Or invited, for that matter.
‘I never seen such shiny apples. Reckon they’re for that Gloriana Nelson’s party. Lot of her boys live at Mrs Stone’s.’
Kelpie wished her stomach were quiet. She would not listen to Tommy. Miss Lee never had. No one has ever lied as much as that young man, she’d told Kelpie. Just because sometimes he leads you to a meat pie. Well, a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Kelpie wished Tommy told the truth that often.
‘All you gotta do is climb in the back window. The one off that side.’
Kelpie couldn’t help looking past Mrs Stone’s fence, which sagged in the middle like an old horse. The window was open; a tattered curtain fluttering over the sill looked silver in the moonlight.
‘Back door’s always locked. Kitchen’s second door down past the room you’ll climb into. And there’s your apples. Dead shiny, they are.’
Kelpie knew better than to go in. Apples or no apples.
She wasn’t even sure she remembered their taste. A bit sharp, a lot sweet. Or was that plums? Hadn’t had one of them since Old Ma was alive. They were softer, juicier. Apples were the hard ones. Like cricket balls. She felt the water enter her mouth.
‘Never seen so many apples,’ Tommy said.
‘Why do you want me to eat?’ Kelpie asked instead of walking on like she would have if Miss Lee hadn’t faded. ‘They poison?’
If Miss Lee was still here Kelpie wouldn’t be talking to him. She wouldn’t be hungry either. Miss Lee found food for her and safe places to sleep.
‘She’s gone now, ain’t she? You talking to me again and no shoes. No one’s looking out for you.’ He paused and then said, ‘’S not right.’ Almost as if he cared.
That should’ve been Kelpie’s warning. Tommy didn’t care about anything. If he wanted her to go into Mrs Stone’s it weren’t for any good reason.
Ghosts couldn’t hurt you directly. They couldn’t push you off a cliff, but they could lead you off one, if you were stupid enough to follow.
But Kelpie was hungry. Hard to think when you’re hungry. She had to scrounge food where she could, because Miss Lee was gone, because Snowy was still in gaol and no one else living looked out for her, because she had no money to pay for food, and because she couldn’t beg. Kids who begged got swept up by Welfare.
Tommy nodded at Mrs Stone’s. ‘Ain’t none of them home. Too early for that lot. And you know Mrs Stone’s deaf as a post.’
The sun wasn’t up. For the razor men, the standover men – all of that mob – their working day ended at noon. Didn’t start till after the sun went down.
‘I used to love me some apples.’
Kelpie stared at him. Tommy kept showing teeth. Happy as a pig in shit, Old Ma would have said, with no approval at all.
‘Go on then.’ Tommy pointed at the gap in the collapsing grey fence, edged with splinters longer than Kelpie’s thigh. ‘You’ll fit through easy.’ He leaned back, arms folded, all nonchalant like he owned the lane.
Kelpie was hungry.
She slipped through the gap, crept past the pile of bricks that was the dunny leaning against the fence. Smelled like the nightsoil men had missed this one. She threaded her way past a broken curved-backed chair, and a rusting bicycle without seat or handlebars or wheels. Weeds growing high between paving stones brushed the backs of her calves.
Kelpie tried the back door, not putting it past Tommy to make her enter through a window when she didn’t have to.
She stood on her toes to look through the window. The dirty curtain brushed across her nose. An empty bedroom. Narrow unmade bed in the corner. A pile of clothes on top of suitcases and a side table covered with old newspapers, an overfull ashtray and empty bottles. One was filled with desiccated brown flowers. Kelpie wondered at a razor man having flowers, even dead ones, and then hauled herself over the sill.
Outside she could hear the clip clop of horse and cart, the clatter of a truck down Foveaux Street, further away raised voices. The house creaked, settling in the wind. The place smelled damp and dank and dusty. Underfoot were uneven floorboards and grit. She heard no movement inside the house.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist