Today, Surry Hills is a quiet, bohemian suburb of Sydney, but in the 1920s and 1930s, it was one of the roughest neighourhoods in Australia, rocked by gang-wars in which "standover men" fought one another with straight-razors — avoiding the automatic suspicion generated by toting a gun.
It is here, in this blood-soaked Australian version of the Guilded Age, that Justine Larbalestier has set her latest YA novel, Razorhurst, telling the story of two young women whose lives are as different as can be, but also bound together by a weird and terrible kind of sisterhood.
Kelpie is a malnourished, feral child, a creature of the streets who doesn't even know how old she is. The only way she's survived to her current age — whatever it may be — is through the help of the Surry Hills' coterie of ghosts. Kelpie has always been able to see ghosts. Old Ma, who raised her until her death when Kelpie was only a small child, understood this, and taught her how to find the helpful ghosts and avoid the malicious ones. When Old Ma died — her ghost lifting from the bed and encouraging Kelpie to gather her possessions and flee their tumbledown shack — Kelpie was left in the care of ghosts.
Dymphna is as different as Kelpie as two young women could be. She is the prized top-earner of Glory, the brothel-owning crime-lord of Surry Hills. But she's also the obsession of Glory's arch-rival, Mr Davidson, Surry Hills' other crime-boss, who keeps killing the standover men whom Dymphna takes as her lovers and protectors. Dymphna is beautiful, high-class, well-spoken, and graceful. But she, too, can see ghosts.
Dymphna and Kelpie's lives come together when someone murders Dymphna's lover, Jimmy Palmer, with whom Dymphna had been plotting to take over from both Glory and Mr Davidson, ruling the Surry Hills. Haunted by Palmer's ghost (which Dymphna will not admit she can see, not to anyone, especially not Kelpie, who believes herself to be the only one who can see ghosts), the two girls must run, before one or both of the crime-bosses has them kidnapped, killed or worse.
Larbalestier weaves the history of Surry Hills into a story that is full of violence, sex, crime, corruption, nobility, love and lust, bringing a lost place to life even as she grabs us by the lapels and drags us through a fantastic supernatural caper story.
I've enjoyed every one of Larbalestier's books (especially the quirky, nearly indescribable Liar), but this one takes her storytelling to a whole new level.