Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Zoo City Cover

Zoo City


The Women of Genre Fiction challenge has so far proven to be an excellent excuse for me to read a lot more female authors of sci-fi and fantasy. Which may not seem like a big deal to some, but when your to-read list on Goodreads numbers 837 books (I checked), and your reading time is severely limited by your commute sapping the life out of you, being able to sit down with a good book is an amazing way to wind down. And in Zoo City, Beukes has created a charming, engaging and believable alternate Johannesburg/South Africa/world, with a host of vibrant and diverse characters. It reads like a wonderful mix of urban fantasy, science fiction and detective noir, and follows the story of Zinzi December, a young woman with a nasty past, a scam habit and a Sloth on her back.

In the world of Zoo City, once someone commits a crime that brings about guilt, they become Animalled. As in, they obtain an animal and in some cases, a magical gift. For Zinzi, this animal is her Sloth, and her gift is finding lost things, through a sort of psychic connection between the person and the item. There doesn't seem to be much connection between the personality and the animal, but it does seem to be tied to the crime/sin. For Zinzi, her guilt at the death of her brother (due to her drug habit) hangs around, like dead weight -- like her Sloth. She carries it with her every day, unsure of how to really cope and deal with it, and it shows in her interactions with other characters, particularly Benoit. I really liked Zinzi's character, because she is so human, so flawed, and yet not irredeemable. She struggles with the consequences of her actions, and it's always very clear to the reader the level of guilt and regret she feels.

The most amazing thing about Beukes' writing is the amount of work put into the research. Everything about the background of the Animalled concept and its execution (from the crimes to the Undertow, from the news clippings to the scientific journals) is taken up to 11. In the author note at the end of the novel, Beukes talks about the research into everything from music to prisons, to Johannesburg ghettos. The novel is eerily reminiscent of South Africa's apartheid politics, and it's very clear that Beukes writes this with the full understanding of its history, and also the impact it had on the country. The fact that she adds emails, notes, journal clippings and more to this just adds to the richness of the world, and it genuinely makes me feel like it could be a reality.

The idea of Animalled and their connections (like being unable to be separated, and that if the animal dies, the Undertow -- a mysterious force that isn't quite explained (presumably because not even the residents of Zoo City know what it is, exactly) -- comes and takes away the person left behind) is closely related to Pullman's idea of daemons in His Dark Materials. Obviously, Beukes has a different interpretation of the concept, especially the idea I mentioned about the animal representing the crime, to an extent, and it remains fresh and different enough that I can't really say it looks like anything other than a nod to the author. There are a lot of references like this spread throughout the book (spot the Dalek!) and again, it enlarges the world and makes it seem more real.

Ultimately, two things prevent me from giving this 5 stars, and limiting it to 4.5 The first is Zinzi's voice, written in the first person present tense. It... kills it for me, because it didn't work in The Hunger Games and it doesn't work now. I understand the reason for using it, but it seriously doesn't make me connect to her and at times, it's jarring and out of place. I have yet to find a book where this combination is anything but obnoxious at best and completely plot-destroying at worst. The second is the fact that I read this in paperback, not on the Kindle. The Afrikaans peppered throughout the book is hard to follow. Some words become obvious through context, others are explained, but honestly, I missed the dictionary option so much. I know this is a personal preference and it doesn't necessarily impact enjoyment, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Zoo City is an incredibly fresh novel, bursting with fantastic concepts, a strong black female character and a rich, well developed world. I would recommend it to anyone with even a trace of interest in sci-fi/fantasy.