Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

This review contains what I hope are only very mild spoilers.

These days, I’m likely to read I Want My Hat Back or the Dr. Seuss obsession du jour thirty times before I crack open a novel for my own pleasure. But this is a new year, and I’ve resolved to change that, even if it means staring at the dim light of my phone until midnight to get my fiction fix.

I’d seen Zoo City mentioned on Twitter a number of times by random people whose opinions I value, and it won a bunch of legit awards (as opposed to “Best Book This Year According to My Aunt Marlene”), so I decided to give it a shot. The quick summary:

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit – and a talent for finding lost things. But when her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her lastpaycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons.

The story takes place in a fictional Johannesburg, South Africa that may be all too similar to the real one: bubbles of wealth and glamour float on a murky pond layered with sex, violence and the harsh realities of poverty. Zinzi and her immediate circle of friends inhabit condemned buildings, scraping a living together by whatever means necessary. As noted, for her this manifests as sending out variations on the Nigerian Prince email we all know and love, and using a loosely-explained psychic power to find lost things for paying customers.

Part of the draw of this story is exploring not only the physical locations, which to me are exotic even as they are echoed in the city where I live, but also learning about the strange animals that hang around the necks of the characters like living albatrosses. A person becomes “animalled” when they commit murder, finding themselves inextricably linked to anything from a sparrow to an anteater–a sloth, in Zinzi’s case. How this affects these people and society at large is woven throughout the tangled narrative, adding an element of tension, especially for folks like me who have trouble confronting animal abuse in any form.

Zinzi is the kind of protagonist who is hard to like in many ways; she’s a con artist, a former drug addict, doing what she must to pay off her drug debts and stay alive. It’s intensely selfish but also practical, reasonable, given her bleak situation. She’s cynical and spunky, but also vulnerable and depressingly realistic. I rooted for her every time she seemed to be taking a step towards a better life, but there was always that sense that no matter what she did, the best she could hope for was to get by rather than get ahead. She could keep from being dragged down by the current, but she’d still be treading water in that murky pond.

If I had a complaint, it would be the pacing. It may be because I was reading it so slowly–a chapter or two a night–but sometimes each chapter felt like a tiny individual snowball being rolled down a hill, with not enough of a connection to the events surrounding them. Some of this was informational, explaining the animals and exploring their mark on the world; some of it was side plots that didn’t feel related to the whole. But in part 2, strangely named because it seemed to begin about 3/4 of the way through, everything slammed together into a giant snowball of fury that proceeded to destroy everything in its path before flying off a cliff and exploding. Yes, this snowball can explode, deal with it. I finished part 2 in one open-mouthed reading session and couldn’t sleep afterwards.

I definitely recommend this book as an alternative to the kind of urban fantasy that has become common these days: the wizard detective, the monster hunter, the vampire lover, and so on. This inhabits a realm that is more real, even as it is perhaps more strange to Western readers. It’s all the buzz words you’d expect: dark, gritty, a kind of neo-noir that fuses Chinatown with District 9 sans aliens. If the best books are meant to make you think, to drag you out of your comfort zone, to feel like someone yanked your soul out through your nose and stomped on it, then this is a very good book indeed.


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