Author: Lauren Beukes
Publisher: Angry Robot
Non-Western settings are en vogue right now in fantasy fiction, which works out quite well for South African native, Lauren Beukes. My very limited knowledge of the area comes from snippets I’ve seen in television and magazines and of course, the famed novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.
In Zoo City, Lauren Beukes is rooted in real world Johannesburg, but with a fantastical twist. Criminals are magically tethered to an animal that many will liken to the daemon-human pairing of The Golden Compass. But the comparison does not extend much deeper as Zoo City is an entirely unique novel with a very unique premise.
Zinzi December is the novel’s protagonist, a recovering drug addict who finds herself paired with a sloth for a past crime. She is in financial debt and uses her special skill of finding lost things mixed with email spamming to pay back the money she owes.
Beukes writes with elegant prose, hip cultural references (that I fear at times I was too deft too comprehend), poetic metaphors, and a narrative voice that makes you feel like you are reading something literary and cultural, while still thriving as a cool urban fantasy. We are lost in the undertow of Johannesberg, in the dark and dirty streets with prostitutes and drug addicts. We also walk in the light of a cool urban scene with a hip music scene and other animal pairings.
While the world-building and prose were top notch, I did find myself bogged down with the plot. Part of my problem may have been that I listened to this book on audio — which I do not recommend. This would be a great story told as a dramatization (with South African music), but the story as is serves better in print.
Zoo City has received high acclaim and it is well-deserved. Beukes is a talented writer who actually has deeper thoughts to convey beyond the basic story. I enjoyed Zoo City very much and look forward to reading her latest novel, The Shining Girls, very soon.