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Haunting Historicals: Razorhurst

RazorhurstRazorhurst, Justine Larbalestier
Soho Teen, March 2015
Reviewed from final e-copy

This seems to be a divisive book. It picked up four stars right out of the gate, but in conversation with readers (mostly librarians), I’ve found the majority didn’t love it, although not necessarily for reasons that matter for Printz. It’s a genre-blender — well-researched historical fiction but also an I-see-ghosts tale (that is a genre now, right? At least, I-see-paranormal-stuff seems to be one). In some ways, it’s urban historical fantasy, a niche I rather enjoy and that allows for some fun to be had with a genre (historical fiction) that sometimes gets bogged down in balancing fact and fiction. It’s a good book that defies easy description, and yet it seems to be hanging out low on the buzz meter.

On the whole, I think the haters are wrong and this deserved all its stars, although there are a few issues. Let’s tease them out.

Ok, so let’s start with the strengths.

Surry Hills, Sydney, 1930s: the average US reader probably knows nothing about this time and place, so Larbalestier can’t depend on the reader’s knowledge to make it real. (Note: I can’t speak to the Australian readership, who might have that knowledge, but they also aren’t the folks on the RealCommittee, and those are the readers whose heads we’re trying to get into, so.) However, she doesn’t need to, because the writing makes it easy for the reader. The place and time are incredibly vividly rendered: sights, sounds — the images of the razor cut cheeks, in that early omniscient chapter, is some seriously muscular writing– smells, and the politics of a city run by gangs and bloodshed all feel present and pressing. Kelpie and Dymphna, with their twinned yet utterly opposing perspectives provide a dual narrative lens that helps flesh out the world; each of them knows and sees different aspects of their world, leaving the reader with a wealth of information to decode into understanding. Additional narrative perspectives (the use of third person limited point of view is very adept throughout, as is the sometimes less limited omniscient perspective that takes a cozy, personal tone and the cadences of a told tale as opposed to one traditionally written) temper and expand the two girls, who are the heart of the novel. The descriptive writing throughout is fantastic: “…so many raised voices they overlapped;” “Snowy was a quick learner, which made the chaplain believe he was a good teacher.” It’s not poetic, just spot on and powerfully evocative. The reader knows exactly what those voices sound like to Kelpie; so much is revealed about the chaplain from that one sentence.

The characters are equally vivid: Kelpie and Dymphna; Neal Darcy (poor Neal) and Jimmy Palmer; Snowy. I like the way Larbalestier has played with ideas of twins and opposites. Neal and Jimmy are, like Kelpie and Dymphna, weird reflections of one another. Snowy, on the other hand, is the one main player without a foil. This may be an extension of the dialogue happening at a mostly meta level about race. He’s black, and therefore othered (after Mr. Davidson is killed, Terry and Sam make this very clear — Snowy is the perfect candidate to take over Razorhurst, but… he’s black). Snowy is also probably the closest thing the novel has to a truly good person, even if he is a killer for hire. He doesn’t have a match in the text because he’s a singular character, and there’s a lot of commentary on race in 1920s and 30s Australia revealed through his life — and commented upon subtly by the ways in which he is not what he is assumed to be based on external appearance.

So if all that writing and setting and characterization is to the good, what’s wrong with this?

I did find the pacing subtly off the first time I read this, although I’m not sure I can point to why. It’s a quick story, all taking place in what, two days? But there’s a bit in the middle that seemed to take forever. Maybe it’s just that it’s a lot of new characters all at once and none of them that important? And I’m not sure this is a universal complaint, anyway, but it’s something to look at carefully if we’re talking contender-ness.

Kelpie’s naivete also rubs some readers wrong, but — especially on the second read — it seems fitting, if maybe a bit overdone. She’s almost feral, really, and her sense of everything is so skewed as a result. Again, worth a closer look if this is a serious contender.

But somehow I don’t quite believe that this is a contender even though I think it deserves a place at the discussion. It doesn’t seem to inspire the right kind of passion, either pro or con, and passion-inducing books seem more common than not in the winner’s circle.

(Then again, The White Bicycle.)

What did you think?

 

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Jenna Friebel says:

    I’m glad you’re talking about this book because I think it’s been so undervalued. I absolutely loved it and would count it one of my favorite of the year. I definitely think it’s a contender, particularly because of the vivid setting.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      But do you see how no one else is talking about it? It’s like a weird cone of silence, and I really don’t know why.

  2. I am listening to it on audiobooks right now and the Aussie readers are fabulous. Makes me want to take a trip down under. It is very difficult to get your footing on this book. All the characters and ghosts come at you almost at once and the first day drags on incredibly slowly. How can so much happen in such a short time? We decided to leave it off our Mock Printz list just because we are creating a list for American teenagers to read and we have to be mindful of their tastes when we create our list. (Sometimes we probably leave off winners for that reason…sadly)

    I must admit this book is really starting to grow on me.

    BTW-Here is the Bethel School District Mock Printz list. Fresh off the press! BSD 2016 Mock Printz list

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Thanks, Anne, I love seeing Mock lists! You definitely should add Scorpion Rules;) I won’t review it until more people have had a chance to read it (ie, until it’s been out for more than a week), but I think it’s a marvel.

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