Published by Angry Robots in the UK and Jacana in South Africa, Zoo City is only the second novel from South African writer, Lauren Beukes (following Moxyland), although her work reads with the ease and lyricism of a seasoned pro, which, in all fairness, she is. Beukes has a journalism and scriptwriting background and she isn’t afraid to use these hard-earned skills in her novel writing, which shines through both in wording and style. Beukes is the writer equivalent of a method actor: a method writer. Her research is both academic and physical and she’s been to healers’ markets, visited churches that once housed over three thousand refugees has been thrown out of night clubs, all in the name of fiction. Her methods pay off.
Ex-drug addict Zinzi December is a woman with a past, but that’s obvious from the Sloth on her back. FL (former life) she was a journalist, but now she lives in the South African slums of Zoo City, where most of the residents have been ‘animalled’. She’s become a Mashavi, which refers to both her animal familiar, Sloth, and her magical ability, which for her is to find lost things. Like others in this alternative present, her animal was thrust upon her by the shadowy Undertow, which came for her after her brother was killed by a bullet meant for her. Whether it’s a guilty conscience that has started to manifest physically, a godly punishment or, like the daemons in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (something hinted at in the book), part of their soul, being animalled in a society already suffering from other xenophobic attitudes is not conductive to an easy life.
Still paying off drug debts she racked up in her FL, Zinzi is involved with Internet scams as well as using her ability to find lost things – for a price – when she’s implemented in the murder of one of her clients. In need of the money after the police take her payment for that job, she’s forced to break her ‘no missing persons’ rule to find a lost pop princess and becomes embroiled in more murders and shady goings-on in the music world.
Even with the first person narrative, Zinzi – with her fabulous insults and severe personal issues - is a difficult person to get to know, but by the end you feel that you at least understand her for all of her foibles. This is a story that feels personal, and painful. From Zinzi’s touchingly fragile relationship with Benoît, another Mashavi, to the very real history of the country that still haunts them, although it’s Fantasy the magic is more mythological and is not what drives the story. It’s primarily focussed on the broken people desperate to pick up the pieces just to get by from day-to-day and to rebuild some sort of life, and it’s about living with regret, in this case literally with the physical presence of their animals. The fear of being animalled and the inability to get away from your animal if it happens to you adds an element of claustrophobia to the simmering crucible of a society already in troubled times. Although similar to the daemons in Pullman’s universe, the idea of being unable to hide an aspect of yourself – the monkey on your back - is compelling enough, along with the fast-paced plot, that the novel never falls into the trap of being all concept and no substance.
Beukes paints a bleak picture of Johannesburg and human nature in general; it’s a crumbling city where the ridiculously opulent areas are side-by-side with the dirt-poor, like gold teeth in a rotting mouth. I usually enjoy books more that are lighter in tone, but this bleakness doesn’t overwhelm the novel because the theme of redemption is present throughout, driving the characters forward, however unconsciously.
With Zoo City, Beukes shows what can still be done with the Urban Fantasy genre: it’s a wonderful, gritty, unique gem of a novel, filled with witty dialogue and sentences that zing off the page, and, much like her troubled main character Zinzi, is edgy without being alienating and vulnerable without being soft.