By Lauren Beukes
It was something of a joy to come across Zoo City, a book I’d wanted to read since the first time I read the blurb.
Zinzi has a talent for finding lost things. To save herself, she has to find the hardest thing of all…the truth. Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when a client turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons. Being hired by famously reclusive music producer Odi Huron to find a teenybop pop star should be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass, marked by their animals, live in the shadow of the undertow. Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the underbelly of a city twisted by crime and magic, where she’ll be forced to confront the dark secrets of former lives – including her own. Set in a wildly re-imagined Johannesburg, it swirls refugees, crime, the music industry, African magic and the nature of sin together into a heady brew.
Briefly, Zoo City is set in Johannesburg, an alternative universe where those who have committed crimes are ‘animalled’, given a mshavi animal that is a manifestation of their crimes. The animals themselves give the owner a talent. Zinzi December’s talent is finding lost things. Her other talent, it would seem, is getting into the worst trouble possible. (No really, this woman’s propensity for trouble is astounding, I admire it.)
The storyline is a cracker, whipping along at the kind of pace that laments any temporary closure of the book until the next hour can be spared to read it. It has several subplots, which I sometimes lost sight of until the end. Things that seemed disparate and mentioned in passing were actually part of a much larger scheme, something I thoroughly enjoyed considering so many plots are ‘boy meets girl and they live heternormatively ever after’. The setting is so realistic that I forgot I was reading of an alternative Joburg instead of the one I know so very, very well. The level of detail around Joburg is deeply rewarding, and there were references that only a born-and-bred Joburger could delight in, such as the famous Home of the Chicken Pie. The filth, the glamour, the multiplicity of cultures and noises and alleyways was truly astounding, and it requires a disgusting amount of research for it to look so effortless. There were myriad references to things like Doctor Who (Exterminate!), video games, Elder Gods and an IMDB page. As someone who practically lives on the internet, I felt like it was being written as a covert love song to the Interwabs and all its messed up folks. Definitely months of research went into this, to add so many layers of meaning and detail just in the settings. A book like this takes a team, and all their names are mentioned in the back of the book.
(I love special editions with author interviews and background information.)
I only have one small grievance with it: the ending felt very rushed, like all the threads were pulled together in one go. The whole Songweza mystery was excellent, but resolved halfway. Then there was a lull (which could have been used to build on the Animal muti murders a bit) and then everything was whooshing together at high speed. Perhaps a second read-through will reveal further details. The Undertow still confuses me a little as well. Is it an actual force that comes after everyone when their Animal is killed? Is it just a psychotic breakdown? The psychology insert suggests the latter, the former occurs when the Bear is killed in the streets of Hillbrow. (Unless…you’ll have to read it, but I have a suspicion that a mutilated bird is involved.) In any case, I wish I could come up with something this brilliant and original.
Overall, it may be a disturbing read for some (some of the imagery will not get out of my head) but as far as multi-layered, delicious, in-depth and imminently brilliant books go, I think Zoo City offers something for a great deal of fans. There’s horror, crime, fantasy, magic, realism, drugs and rock and roll to go around. There are sangomas, 419 scammers and sleazy music producers. Zinzi is as tough as she is inventive and brave, and what a fantastic change to see a woman kick so much ass while carrying a heavy Sloth on her back.
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