Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
‘Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.’ – Blurb
If the first ten chapters of Zoo City are a wind chime on a chilly day, the rest of the novel is a foghorn in the summer. Full of mystery and questions that keep you fuelled chapter after chapter, Zinzi December has to navigate her way around South Africa to find a missing starlet. Sounds easy enough, right? But when you add a city full of symbiotic familiars, a sloth with an attitude, and the constant threat of the Undertow looming over her, Zinzi’s less than perfect life gets spun even more out of control.
‘Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it’s going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam.’
This urban fantasy novel really pushes the boat out when it comes to dropping you into a foreign world. Riddled with different languages, Lauren Beukes takes you through a dystopian supernatural adventure where people who have ‘sinned’ – committed crimes – are burdened with a choice:
Die, or literally carry your sins around with you and gain some form of supernatural power – like Zinzi’s ability to find ‘lost things’ – along the way.
‘Don’t get too close buddy’ I warn Sloth. Unofficially there’s a code of conduct but animals are still animals. And animals can be asshole too.’
Zinzi chose the latter and now lives her life with the physical manifestation of her crimes, which you piece together as you read through the novel, as a ‘Zoo’. If a person is separated from their animal it causes them excruciating pain. The death of their animal calls forth the Undertow, a hellish mist or shadow that comes to take ‘Zoos’ away if their animal dies, leaving nothing of them behind.
‘We’re all about tolerance in Zoo City. Or mutually assured desperation.’
I like that Beukes throws her readers into this new environment of labels and groups and the consequences that each face. I like that information is given gradually and through the use of news articles, emails, and movie reviews. The way Beukes describes the surroundings and the characters in the book is seamless – it doesn’t feel like you’re getting a massive paragraph of exposition.
I also liked that her characters don’t all see Zoos as killers and the like. Each character’s reaction to Zinzi and other Zoos are different, and how people get their familiars isn’t set in stone.
However, I would have liked a bit more on the Undertow; for something as lurching and inevitable as this apparition, there isn’t much of it until more than halfway through the book. Though, when you do come across the Undertow the tension and novel itself really does get kicked up a notch.
All in all, a really good read.
On another note, these are the two front covers of Zoo City that I have come across and I’m curious: which one do you prefer? Let me know in the comments.
You can buy the book here. Enjoy!