Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Zoo City

by Lauren Beukes


Zinzi December is a character with a lot to atone for. She's fallen a long way since her former life as a journalist, and now she lives in the slums of Johannesburg crafting scam emails to help her pay off her drug debts. She also has a sideline in helping people find lost things, although this doesn't make her much money.

Finding things is Zinzi's magical ability, which is something she developed since becoming a "zoo". Zoos are people with an animal familiar, and in Zinzi's case this is Sloth. In Zoo City the animalled are a distrusted minority, an underclass that inspires loathing in decent society. All kinds of animals from bears to butterflies appear as familiars, many of them arriving out of the blue from impossible distances. But only one kind of person seems to become a zoo: someone guilty of doing something very evil.

However, in spite of her fallen status Zinzi still has some standards. She doesn't deal with stolen goods or missing people, for instance. So when two people come along and offer her a job finding a missing young pop star she's inclined to turn it down. But despite her best intentions she finds herself on the case, looking out for drugged-up young singers and trying to retrace the girl's movements.

This is a gritty mystery full of sleaze and exotic magic. Zinzi is something of an anti-heroine trying to pay off moral and financial debts, but she seems to stand no chance of reducing one kind of debt without increasing the other. Her cynical humour about the rotten situation she's in makes her an engaging character, though. Sloth can't talk but he makes his views known throughout and he acts a little like Zinzi's conscience. He also protects her in various ways, including holding off the dreaded undertow. The undertow is a bit like a current sucking sinners into Hell, which threatens all zoos. However with all this talk of guilt, conscience and damnation I'm painting the story as a lot less ambiguous than it actually is. One of the good things about Zoo City is the way Lauren Beukes is never too prescriptive about why zoos have appeared all of a sudden, why they have special powers, and what it all means. Readers are allowed to make up their own minds about whether Zinzi can be redeemed and what the animals really stand for.

There's a touching sub-plot going on with Benoit, an animalled man who lives with Zinzi. Their relationship is dealt a heavy blow in the course of the story. Zinzi is faced with the choice of doing the right thing by everyone else, even though she doesn't want to, and there's a nice bit of tension as we wonder how she will deal with her complex love life.

From grimy slums to gang warfare to supernatural horrors, Zoo City is a book of hard edges and nasty surprises. It's also livened up by stabs of sharp, black humour, and the action is unrelenting. Animal companions have been used before, in books like Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, but Lauren Beukes gives them a uniquely severe perspective here. This is a dark fantasy about forgiveness and redemption, but the authentic picture it paints of Johannesburg's corrupt underbelly gives this story real bite.

8th March 2011

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

  Female Protagonist  
  Not For The Squeamish  

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Review © Ros Jackson