Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes
Posted December 7, 2010on:
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes is one of those wonderful books that what it’s about isn’t at all what it’s about. It’s about Zinzi December, and her knack for finding lost things, and the dangerous mystery she gets herself involved with when she gets hired to find a teen starlet whose gone missing. And yes, that’s what it’s about. But it isn’t about that at all. Zoo City is about how society treats the marginalized – the destitute, the different, the criminal class. On top of that, there is some wonderfully hella cool magic.
Although she and I are very different, on every page I felt I could relate to Zinzi December. I have never spent time in prison, she has. I am not marginalized, she is. I don’t make a living scamming people over the internet, she does. But the trust issues? The anti-socialness? Her realistic attitude that comes off as cynicism? He reaction when her lover says he’s leaving? Oh baby can I relate. Maybe we’re not so different after all.
In this alternate world, every jail sentence is a life sentence, no matter what. When you commit a crime, your animal comes for you. Not a totem and not a familiar, the animal brings a special talent with it, and being separated from your animal causes physical pain and death in some cases. And if your animal dies before you do? The Undertow will come for you. Governments learn very quickly how to identify and exploit this new class of undesireables, known derogatorily as Animalled or Zoos.
Beukes only gives scant details about how the “Animalled” came to be. Journalists guess that it could be an evolutionary response to nuclear fall out, or the start of the apocalypse, or that these people are soulless witches. Regardless of the why, with guilt comes an animal, and judgement by society. Forever. The Animalled have no way of hiding who or what they are. Ostracized, they are barred from working and living where they want, forced to live in ghettos and pushed towards lives of crime and prostitution. It sounds horribly bleak, and it is. But Zinzi is not a bleak or sad or scared person. She is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a long time.
Unique and refreshing, Zoo City is unlike any speculative thriller I have ever read. With wry prose full of smart-ass metaphors and snarky, snappy dialogue, and magic that comes in flavors of haunting and disturbing, this is old school urban fantasy given new voice. This is the Scarlet Letter meets ultra contemporary fears and prejudices. I’m probably starting to sound like a blabbering fangirl, but this novel just worked for me, on so many levels.
Zoo City is deserving of all the praise I can heap on it and more. I carried this book around for three days and refused to put it down, telling everyone within earshot that they need to read it. Which makes my little complaint feel even more petty, but I need to voice it. We learn about Zinzi’s past through the flashbacks she chooses to share. I have no problem with limited flashbacks and characters keeping secrets from the reader, in fact I find that style of characterization rather intriguing. But some of the transitions were clunky. At some points, especially near the end, I wasn’t sure if we were talking about now or then. It wasn’t a big deal, but a little bothersome for me.
Teensy petty complaint aside, Zoo City is a book you owe it to yourself to read. Already on shelves in the UK, it will hit the US and Canada in January.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Angry Robot Books.