KokkieH Reviews Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Cover illustration by Joey Hi-Fi
Publisher: http://www.jacana.co.za

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things.  But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheque, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.

Being hired by reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass and their animal companions live in the shadow of hell’s undertow.

Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the maw of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives, including her own. – Book description on cover

In Zoo City Lauren Beukes gives us a Johannesburg very different from the one we know in some respects, but very similar in others.  It still has it’s wealthy gated communities, inner-city slums, gangs, crime and corruption.  It also has magic – blankets with spells woven into them that sting you when you try to steal them and people with all kinds of special abilities, and pets.

Zinzi is one of them (the people, not the pets).  Her ability?  Finding lost things.  Her pet?  A sloth (yes, the blurb means “sloth on her back” literally).  I won’t say any more about the pets, as that is one of the biggest mysteries of the novel, aside from mentioning that the people who have these animals, referred to as Zoos, all have a darkness of some kind in their past and are ostracised by all who don’t.

It is in this setting that Zinzi has to find a missing teen pop star, but ends up finding much more.

As with The Shining Girls I struggled reading this one.  The first-person present tense narration took some getting used to.  The plot also progressed a bit slowly and I didn’t find myself becoming truly invested until about two-thirds in (up until that point all that kept me reading was curiosity about the undertow).  There are some sub-plots which do contribute somewhat towards understanding Zinzi’s character, but was not really that crucial to the story in my opinion.

But the story excels in many other areas.  Beukes’s dialogue is brilliant.  In places entire pages go by without dialogue attribution but each character’s voice is so unique that it’s never confusing.  And the language is so thoroughly South African that I found myself hoping international editions had a glossary included as there’s no way foreigners would be able to navigate all the slang and colloquialisms (I even had to look up a few and I live here!)

The mystery surrounding Zoos and the Undertow is tantalising, more so even than the plot, and Beukes enhances it by interrupting the narrative every few chapters with interviews, magazine and academic articles and transcripts from television documentaries discussing the rise of the phenomenon.  She does this so skilfully that one can almost believe it’s talking about something real.

But I think the biggest triumph of this novel is the way it explores the issues of discrimination and prejudice and the lengths some people will go to in order to avoid the stigma attached to being different.

Zoo City wasn’t an easy read, but it is an inspired novel.  I can understand that Beukes’s newest novel, Broken Monsters, is already heading for a reprint in South Africa.  I sincerely hope it does just as well abroad (though, as with The Shining Girls and Zoo City you’re all going to miss out on the phenomenal cover of the South African edition, and that’s a crying shame).

(Warning: some of these contain all the spoilers I tried to avoid)

4 thoughts on “KokkieH Reviews Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

  1. My impression is Aaronovitch is much more aimed at the fun side than Beukes.

    You’re not the only person to have some issues with the plot. I grew up on noir and hardboiled fiction and obviously it calls on those traditions, but it’s not what you’d read the book for. I think you’re right it’s much more the dialogue, the world and the issues it addresses so well.

    In a way I think it’s a shame her two most recent novels are set in the US. It makes them more accessible to more readers I grant, even outside the US since it’s so familiar from TV and movies, but there are so many books set in the US and so few in South Africa (that reach us anyway) that I’d love to see more exploration of the South African milieu. Still, she should write what she wants to write of course.

    Thanks for the ping by the way!

    1. I suppose setting her novels in the US is also more commercially viable. I don’t for example, see the television options for Zoo City getting bought by someone like DiCaprio as happened with The Shining Girls. (And heaven help us if a local production company buys those options. I love my country, but when it comes to producing television shows we rather shouldn’t – our best actors and directors are on stage, not on the telly.)

      But she really does have a gift for South African urban slang. I’m actually eager to read Moxyland just for more of that. And sadly she can’t flaunt that particular skill in novels set abroad.

      Still, publishing in SA seems to be growing for now, and the fact that someone like Beukes can make it overseas with a novel set locally give hope to someone like me who’s only just starting.

      You’re welcome 🙂 I only ping reviews I enjoyed reading and I did yours. I especially liked your opening remarks about the Arthur C. Clarke award. It’s sad that the SF genre (and Fantasy as well) have these self-appointed gatekeepers that believe anything that doesn’t fit their idea of the genre should be kept out, no matter how good it is. I wasn’t even aware of the phenomenon until I started blogging and reading blogs of SF/F authors and fans.

  2. I haven’t read any Lauren Beukes, but it sounds reminiscent of (although also very different to) Ben Aaronovitch, have you read him? They both take a real city (in Aaronvitch it’s London) and make it fantastical. He’s good fun, probably aiming for more humour than Beukes. I’ll definitely look out for Beukes, and hopefully a glossary will be included!

    1. I’ve not read Aaronovitch but I’ll keep an eye open for his books.

      Beukes’s novels are very dark and somewhat twisted but she does a great job of bringing the fantastical into a contemporary setting. I omitted to mention this novel actually won the Arthur C Clarke award in 2011.

      Her two latest novels, The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters are set in Chicago and Detroit respectively, so no glossary necessary 😉

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