Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.

Zoo City

Read December 2013
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Zoo City is one of the more original, complicated fantasy books that I’ve read this year. I’m not even sure how to tag it, that’s how many elements come into play. Urban fantasy? Johannesburg is a major city, after all, and the animal angle is clearly unreal. Dystopia? Almost, but not quite; despite the animals, this is a current version of Johannesburg and African politics. Mystery noir? After all, there’s a missing person and an investigator of questionable character. Horror? A little witchcraft, a little mutilation, but mostly it’s only horror in that way that shows us our own hearts, evil enough to cut out.  Literary fiction? It thoughtfully explores the human condition, guilt and identity. Mostly, it’s just interesting, creative and just a bit uncomfortable.

You know you are in for a bleak ride from the first sentence:

“Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window.”

The main character is Zinzi, who divides her life into ‘now’–as of three and a half years ago–and ‘FL,’ for ‘former life.’ Zinzi’s past isn’t fully explored, but at one point she was a very wealthy young woman, a journalist, and a serious drug addict. A fatal mistake landed her in jail, forcing her to get clean and alienating her from her family. Mystically, it also burdened her with a sloth. An animal comes to people in a mysterious way, after committing a serious crime, so the ‘animalled’ are especially marginalized by society. Guilt seems to be a major component of having an animal, as we are told sociopaths and psychopaths don’t have them. Interestingly, it also comes with a extrasensory-type ‘gift.’ Zinzi’s is finding lost things:

“The problem with my particular gift, curse, call it what you like, is that everybody’s lost something. Stepping out in public is like walking into a tangle of cat’s cradles, like someone dished out balls of string at the lunatic asylum and instructed the inmates to tie everything to everything else. On some people, the lost strings are cobwebs, inconsequential wisps that might blow away at any moment. On others, it’s like they’re dragging steel cables.”

Zinzi is currently living in Zoo City, a ghetto where the ‘animalled’ tend to cluster. She’s been dating a refugee with his own animal, a mongoose, but mostly she’s been skating under the surface, working free of her former drug debt by engaging in various computer scams, and freelancing as a finder of lost items. There’s a major client on the hook– Mrs. Luditsky has hired her to find a lost ring. Mission accomplished, she shows up to collect, only to discover a police barricade and two suspicious animalled lurking, one with a Marabou stork and one with a Maltese poodle. They have a job offer for her, one she wants to refuse, especially because it involves finding a missing person. Unfortunately, the police confiscate both the ring and Mrs. Luditsky’s down payment, leaving her severely strapped for cash. From there, the book centers around the missing-person case.

Sometimes, it is hard to dissect a book–is it the writing that unsettles me? Or is it actually a reaction to a well-crafted tale? Beukes has created one of the most morally-ambiguous female protagonists since Joe Abercrombie, in a setting that would bring out the worst in almost everyone. I think one of my struggles with Zoo City results from a lack of emotional connection, but I suspect that is because Zinzi herself is so well written as a broken person. She has lost too much, and has decided her best strategy for protection involves holding the world at arm’s length. The world of Zoo City and the underground is tough, and her survival strategy seems to be ‘use or be used.’ Her isolation is particularly poignant when romantic relationships are involved, but when she casually exploits the well-meaning. It’s real, it’s sad, and it’s rather hard to witness:

“He only ever calls me ‘my love’ in Lingala, which makes it easier to disregard.”

Narrative was interesting, but might not work for everyone. Zinzi is a first person narrator the majority of the time, but intersperses other pieces of communication between chapters. Email and clippings from the newspaper’s ‘Police Files’ are the most common types, but there is also an email scam, a documentary back-story, a dictionary of terms and very moving ‘testimonials’ of the animalled from a documentary on prisons. It isn’t quite as frequent as every other chapter, and most of the time the pieces tie into the larger story. However, as they lack direct transitions, the intention isn’t always clear, and it likely ends up increasing the distance between the reader and Zinzi. As a side note, I’ve seen people relate that this was particularly disconcerting in the audio version, so I advise consideration if you are an audio book-reader.

While I really enjoyed the writing, once again, it won’t work for those looking for an uplifting story.  With flavors of Clockwork Orange and Less Than Zero, it is a clear look at a hopeless future after tragic mistakes.  Although the voice is clear, straight-forward, much like Zinzi herself, the tone is reflective of her cheerless outlook. Most description matches the bleakness of the book:

“‘You must be…’
There are a lot of words I could fill in here. None of them quite match the cocktail of emotion burning a hole in my stomach right now: a mix of Stroh rum and sulphur acid.”

Beukes is very much of the school of fantasy writing that does not seek to explain every detail, instead encouraging the reader to build their own picture of the world. Again, this works for my own reading preference, but I know for those that like more thorough explanations, it might be a sticking point. For instance, the whole reason for Zinzi’s animal is distilled down to a drug-induced memory and a police report reference, a minor plot point that is easily missed. Beukes states in a GR Q&A that she’d rather trust her readers, and I think she largely succeeds at her choices. I enjoy gathering pieces of the world as I read, particularly as it leads to high re-readability, so I find it to be a positive. In addition, there is frequent use of South African slang.  Although I’m told you can find some of the words on the web, most of it works well in context, so I read without interruption.

Plotting/pacing is the most serious stumble, and one of the reasons this has less than five stars. I was sailing along, enjoying the development of the mystery, wondering if Zinzi would reach an emotional breakthrough, when all of a sudden pace and tenor shifted. It occurs shortly before “Part Two,” the final section that encompasses only one hundred pages.  More than a little rough in the transition, it almost seems to become almost a different story, a thriller-type race and climax. I read quickly, uncomfortably, and with puzzlement. There’s gore, a heart-pounding confrontation and an imperfect resolution.

I was going to throw in more spoilery thoughts, but I’ll leave that for later–if you happened to read, please, let’s discuss.

I think it’s also worth noting that Beukes, though a white South African, was able to respectfully reach outside her own experience and create a number of well-realized, complex characters from vastly different backgrounds. As I re-read for my review, I find myself lingering over the writing. I can’t get Zinzi’s tale out of my head. Remember when I wrote about dreaming of urban fantasy that pushes boundaries? This is it. Like it? Not entirely. Remember it? Definitely.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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13 Responses to Zoo City by Lauren Beukes.

  1. Zanna says:

    sounds fantastic – I’m definitely adding this to the (rapidly becoming ridiculous) list
    the animal angle sounds really interesting… usually animals have more of a redemptive role in literature…?

  2. thebookgator says:

    It was a very interesting story. I think Burke wisely left the interpretation of animals up to the reader. I suspect that the animals displayed personalities too similar to their owners to be anything but an alter ego. Not necessarily for better or for worse; it depended on what the person did.

  3. MrsJoseph says:

    This sound really interesting! I doubt I’d read it with the emotional distance and all but…really interesting!

  4. MrsJoseph says:

    Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. I decided that 2014 would be the year of not forcing myself to read anything I don’t want to. And full permission to set it down and walk away if I get tired of it.

  5. MrsJoseph says:

    I’ve been slowly getting back into reading with screening, too. I’ve started and stopped half a dozen books in the last few weeks but have only read old favorites. But at least I’m happy about it. 🙂

  6. Pingback: The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Burokers | book reviews forevermore

  7. maamej says:

    I agree with you about the ending – how it suddenly changes pace, and also how she suddenly jumps to all these conclusions about the murders, that seem to come out of nowhere. I enjoyed the way Zinzi’s narrative is interspersed with other texts, it made it more interesting for me, although the first couple of times it happened I had to backtrack a bit to make sense of it. I guess I can see why people might not like that, but for me it enriched the story.

  8. alicegristle says:

    It’s an interesting irony to find a book one’s been hoping to find… and then not liking it. 😀

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