Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – review

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes has a very interesting premise. People who have committed heinous crimes (mostly murder) have their guilt manifest as an animal that cannot be far removed from their person on pain of… well pain. With such an obvious manifestation of a shady past, those with animals generally form a sub-class of society. But with this downgraded socio-economic status comes one advantage – the animals confer on their “owners” a power. The exact nature of the power changes from person to person.

The story is set in an alternate Johannesburg in an alternate South Africa. The main character (Zinzi December) is in possession of a sloth, who gives her the ability to find lost things. While her past is never examined in depth, it becomes clear fairly early that her upbringing was relatively privileged and that she’d been a journalist in a previous life.

First off can I say – a sloth! The choice of animal alone made me predisposed to like this book. There must have been some temptation to use a “cool” animal. Ms Beukes resisted that temptation, and created a much richer character pair between Zinzi and her sloth as a result. I notice nobody seemed to name their animal – I guess as a manifestation as a part of themselves it would seem somewhat redundant.

I liked the Zinzi character a lot. She is obviously a very flawed protagonist – she did something awful to get her sloth in the first place and has amassed a significant debt courtesy of a former drug addiction, which she is paying off by undertaking some morally questionable activities. While she doesn’t show much remorse for doing what she needs to in order to survive, it is clear that she is striving to extract herself from her situation and have the chance to lead a better life. It made for the kind of character I like – flawed but functional.

The story reads as a urban fantasy detective novel, with Zinzi looking for a missing pop star in return for a sizeable fee. I found the plot solid and reasonably engaging – it felt mostly like a vehicle for showcasing the world building and main character, but was interesting enough to keep me along for the ride.

The description of Johannesburg was enthralling. In fact, there was a fantastic sense of place throughout the novel – I thought Ms Beukes did an excellent job of painting a picture of the city and its surrounds (of course I have never been to Johannesburg so I have no idea whether it was an accurate picture but it was certainly vivid!)

The themes of how society treats its underclasses were woven in subtly enough that I didn’t feel beaten over the head (soften perhaps by the fact that the price of entry to this particular part of society was killing someone – no accidents of birth here).

I really liked Ms Beukes use of alternate media/communication formats for showing backstory and moving the plot along in parts. Email scams, chat sessions, newspaper articles – even an IMDb entry. As much as I liked them, I did wonder a couple of times whether those aspects would make the book date a little more quickly than it otherwise would (a little like the more recent William Gibson novels Spook Country and Zero History). Along with some other elements  – such as naming brands and giving a definitive timetable for the introduction of the animalled – it marks the book as of its time.

I was heading towards absolutely loving this book, but I felt a little let down by the end. Without giving any specific plot away, I felt Zinzi’s participation in the final scenes was very passive. If she hadn’t been there, I’m not sure what would have been different. Still, it was an excellent book overall and hopefully there is a sequel somewhere in the works – I’d love to read more about this animalled world.

I read this novel as a result of it being the subject of one of my favourite podcasts, The Writer and the Critic, this month (January 2012).

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Author: mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

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