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).
More reviews of Zoo City
(Warning: some of these contain all the spoilers I tried to avoid)
- Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (yellowedandcreased.wordpress.com)
- In Zoo City, it’s impolite to ask. (pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com)
- Shadow-Self Absorption: Lauren Beukes’ “Zoo City” (doctorbeardsreadingyear.wordpress.com)
- Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (nethspace.blogspot.com)
- Lauren Beukes and African Science Fiction (africainwords.com)