REVIEW: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

zoo city, art by joey hifi, lauren beukes

File under: Everything Breaks

Someone (I cannot remember who) once said that fantasy is at it’s best when holding a mirror up to reality, a mirror that distorts in such a way that you see things you wouldn’t usually look for. Zoo City does just that; it could be described as gritty, though the grit is laced with crushed glass. It’s sharp, succinct, and expects the reader to keep up.

Set in a world where committing a crime can result in a spiritual familiar-cum-dæmon attaching itself to you, and where having one marks you as the lowest of the low, Zoo City has its roots firmly set in the visceral reality of Jo’burg’s slums. Told in first person interspersed with police records, emails and newspaper clippings, the protagonist is razor-tongued Zinzi December, accompanied at all times by her Sloth. Balancing paying off a drug debt against keeping her more moral lover and making ends meet, Zinzi is trying to keep her head down and stay out of trouble.

People who are ‘Animalled’ tend to have a skill or shavi. Something a little supernatural. Zinzi can find lost things, and the story kicks off as she is coerced into finding a missing person. It’s not a job that she wants to take on, but with a debt of R94,235.82 and her other jobs mysteriously vanishing (or being murdered), Zinzi does not exactly have a choice.It’s not long before events lurch out of control, bringing her FL (Former Life-time before being Animalled), her sometime lover Benoît and her current case into a slow, traumatic collision, and I cannot say much more about that without ruining the story.

This book is peopled with unforgettable characters. Benoît, who has principles and scars. The ominous couple known mainly by the names of their Animals (Marabou and Maltese) who persuade Zinzi to take on the job and are rarely seen without each other. Odi Huron, gone to seed managerial genius of the music industry. Journalists and rehab managers and muti makers and gangsters all shamble in and out, tangible and bloody and sometimes surviving little more than a few paragraphs.

The writing style is terse and rippled through with haunting images. It is a study of violence and power struggles; of what people are willing to do to each other. It’s also a ripping yarn that hooked me and drew me through its pages in under four hours.

What I loved, above the story with its stranglehold on my mind, above this world which Lauren Beukes has created that was so real that I could taste the smog, was Zinzi December. Here is a heroine who’s made mistakes and had to live with them, who is fighting for survival rather than revenge or justice or any of those things that female protagonists are so often searching for. Zinzi December was human through and through, flawed and resourceful and desperate.

The whole thing is peppered through with hard little facts (China executes zoos on principle) and references to documentaries and real-life conflicts. If being bottled was enjoyable, this is what being bottled by a book would feel like. Read it.

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