I read my first Justine Larbalestier book, Liar, a million years ago and meant to read more of them, but then she didn’t write anything that seemed nearly as exciting for a while. Then I heard Larbalestier was writing a historical fiction novel, and I was like, uggggh, come on, but THEN I heard she was writing a historical fiction novel set in Sydney and involving ghosts and I was like, oh, yeah, count me in.
And that is this book! Our hero, Kelpie, is an orphan of indeterminate age who lives in a super shady Sydney suburb that is part of a larger neighborhood called Razorhurst. Razorhurst is, as the nickname might suggest, full of razor-wielding gangs and, necessarily, a lot of ghosts. Kelpie can see those ghosts. Most of them are pretty awful, but some of them have helped her survive on the streets without getting picked up by child services, so when one of the more in-the-middle ghosts points her in the direction of food, she crosses her fingers and goes to find it. Instead she finds Dymphna Campbell, “best girl” to the head of one of two competing gangs; Jimmy Palmer, the super annoying ghost of Dymphna’s dead boyfriend; and a whoooole world of trouble.
I mean, if that doesn’t intrigue you, I cannot help you become more interested in this book. There’s running and jumping and also talking in measured tones and avoiding the gaze of ghosts. There’s a little bit of romance, but not much, and there is a lot of overthinking next moves and then just going for it and hoping for the best.
I really liked the way Larbalestier handled the ghost business. On an individual ghost level, there’s Kelpie having to juggle listening to Jimmy’s advice and then figuring out how to give it without looking highly suspicious, or, alternately, how to ignore the advice completely without sending Jimmy into a tantrum. But even more interesting is how the ghosts aren’t all of one mold — some haunt people, some haunt places, some just kind of exist, some are quiet, some are loud, some are obnoxious — and how Larbalestier puts some thought into where a bunch of ghosts might hang out in 1930s Sydney. So there are ghosts, sure, but they don’t seem terribly out of place in an otherwise historically accurate (I presume) novel.
The humans, on the other hand… I just didn’t click with them that well. I didn’t quite understand how they were all interacting with each other or what emotions they were supposed to be feeling about things or what emotions I might be supposed to be feeling about things that happened to the humans. There were a few times where I could tell that I was supposed to be surprised or upset or something but it just wasn’t going to happen.
But, on the plus side, I am kind of obsessed with Australia, and was actually in Sydney for a few days last year, and so it was neat and also kind of super creepy to realize that I was not very far at all from some very ghost-filled places. I’m kind of disappointed now that we spent most of our time on the opposite side of Sydney from Surry Hills/Darlinghurst. If only this book had come out a few months sooner, I could have had some very interesting vacation photos!
Recommendation: For people who saw gangs and ghosts and 1930s Sydney and were like, tell me more.