Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Published: Angry Robot Books, 2010
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award
Nominated: British Science Fiction Association Award, World Fantasy Award
“All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin in a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they knew goes right out the window.” ~Zoo City
That event publicly marked the change that has shaped the world of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City. Those who commit crimes have suddenly found themselves bound to an animal companion, and they face the deadly Undertow if they fail to protect it. These aposymbiotes, also derogatively called zoos and the animalled, are now treated as the ultimate untouchable caste all over the world. In some places they are imprisoned or killed outright. In Johannesburg, South Africa, they have a hard time finding jobs or places to live, and are generally shunned from polite society. The only silver lining in being animalled is the minor supernatural ability that tends to come with it.
Zinzi December, a journalist with a serious drug habit, lost everything on the night she gained her own animal, a Sloth, and a gift for finding things. Zinzi and her Sloth moved to a zoo slum, where she began writing stories for an e-mail scam company and finding people’s lost trinkets to make ends meet. After a client’s death leaves her more broke than usual, Zinzi agrees to take on her least favorite kind of assignment – finding a missing person. If she can find the vanished Songweza, a teenage girl who forms half of an afropop twin act, she’ll have the resources to start getting her life back together. Of course, nothing is as simple as it first appears, and soon Zinzi is drawn into a part of Johannesburg even more dangerous than the zoo slums…
This is the first book I’ve read of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award nominees. Zoo City is Lauren Beukes second novel, and I regret to say that I have not yet read her first, Moxyland. After thoroughly enjoying Zoo City, I’m certainly planning to read Moxyland as well as any future novels by Lauren Beukes.
The story is narrated in first person, from the perspective of Zinzi December. I am not typically a fan of first person narratives, but I think it works well in this case. It worked for me primarily because Zinzi is such a fascinating protagonist. She’s funny, intelligent, relentlessly active, and her perception of the world around her is vividly descriptive.
I don’t want you to have the idea that Zinzi is some typical urban fantasy heroine, though. Zinzi has no particularly impressive physical skills, and any situation that ends in violence typically goes badly for her. On top of that, she’s often dishonest and doesn’t always make the best decisions. However, Zinzi is constantly forced to acknowledge her own mistakes, and, as a result, she doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the narcissism that tends to cling to first-person protagonists. Overall, I enjoyed seeing this world through the filter of Zinzi’s mind.
Another thing I enjoyed about the novel was how realistic the environment felt. I’ve never been to Johannesburg, or South Africa at all, so I can’t compare Zoo City’s Johannesburg to the reality. From Zoo City's descriptions, though, I still have a clear image in my mind of most of the places Zinzi visited. Beukes painted a striking picture of this fictional Johannesburg throughout the story, from the bars and decrepit apartment complexes down to the sewers.
The social situations and interactions between various classes of society also seemed very natural and human. Some non-english words were used throughout the dialogue, but they were always given enough context not to confuse the reader. Zinzi’s constant pop culture references strengthened the sense of the nearness of this world to our own. While the pop culture added a layer of realism to Zinzi’s narration, it made me wonder how the novel will come across to readers ten or twenty years from now.
My Rating: 5/5
I had no idea what to expect going into Zoo City, but I came away deeply impressed. The prose was fast, clever, and rich in detail. Zinzi December was a fascinating protagonist, and her personality alone would have kept me turning the pages. The story took twists and turns that I didn’t predict, and I never would have guessed the ending. Lauren Beukes is an incredible storyteller, and I hope she writes many more novels in the future!