Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Fantasy/Thriller – Angry Robot (US/UK) – Standalone Novel
Set in Johannesburg, Zoo City is a fast-paced novel with a new take on the idea of a spirit animal or a familiar. These animal companions appear spontaneously, and the ‘animalled’ they pair themselves with are stigmatized, living in slums and struggling to find work. For the humans who suddenly gain these familiars, their appearance is also associated with the inexplicable manifestation of a magical power of some kind. Protagonist Zinzi December’s power is an ability to find lost objects, and it is this skill that launches her, and her sloth companion, on the missing-person investigation that is the premise of Zoo City.
I am being purposefully vague about the origins of the ‘animalled’ phenomenon, as I think it is more fun to make your own discoveries and conclusions as you read; suffice to say it is an inventive and unique premise. Zoo City catches and holds onto your attention with witty dialogue, and descriptions that are succinct and incisive. The PI style missing person plot was ultimately a bit of a letdown, with an over-the-top and absurd conclusion that wasn’t my cup of tea… but I loved Beukes’ writing and will absolutely be picking up the rest of her books as soon as possible.
Zoo City‘s biggest selling points are a memorable cast of characters and fantastic world-building. At the heart of the story is the cynical Zinzi, a resourceful but downtrodden con artist always ready with a barbed quip. Zinzi comes across as a believably streetwise character who is relatable and likable even at her most morally bereft. Her sarcasm and anti-authority streak endeared her to me, at the same time as her deception and manipulation of the people around her repelled me.
The other standout character is Johannesburg itself. Beukes drops small, colourful details of city life throughout the story, creating a memorable and evocative setting. As Jace Clayton points out, “Cities force us to confront (or, as the case may be, to pointedly ignore) an enormous amount of socio-economic distance contained within a relatively small geographic space.” The disparity is particularly stark in Johannesburg. Wealthy suburbs are closed off by electric fences; in Soweto, tourists can admire the cafes around Nelson Mandela’s old home while streets away people live in shacks without running water or electricity. Beukes brings the juxtaposition to life, painting the slums with as much care and realism as the bars and suburbs. Her descriptions are lively and loving, yet unflinchingly honest.
The characterization of Zinzi echoes the depiction of Joburg; vibrant, harsh, flawed, marked by past atrocities that continue to do violence to them. They frustrate and disturb us, but we come to care about them and become deeply invested in their futures along the way.
If you like ____ you might want to pick up Zoo City:
- snappy, dialogue-driven writing
- modern/urban fantasy settings
- noir crime thrillers
- badass women of colour protagonists
- exploration of themes of stigma, guilt, discrimination
You might want to pass on Zoo City if:
- you are a stickler for cleanly executed plots, endings in particular
- you dislike gore or violence
Clayton, Jace. “Zoo City: On Sloth, Autotune, & African Noir.” mudd up! August 8, 2011. http://www.negrophonic.com/2011/zoo-city-on-sloth-autotune-african-noir/