Review by Jess Hyslop
Lauren Beukes’s second novel, Zoo City, won the Arthur C. Clarke award last year – and in this humble blogger’s opinion, the accolade is definitely deserved. A more gripping, imaginative, and smart read you would be hard-pressed to find. Zoo City has the works: witty, well-honed prose, a tough, wily protagonist, an exciting thriller-style plot, and a central concept that is fantastic in more ways than one. But this novel is also far from formulaic. Plunging us into the perilous, grimy warren of the Zoo City ghetto – an alternate version of the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg – Beukes conjures a twisting tale that, whilst flavoured as a noir thriller, is made unique and multi-faceted by its interweaving with the novel’s magical concept. For Zoo City is populated by the ‘animalled’, also known as ‘zoos’ or, if you wants to get technical about it, ‘aposymbiotes’: people who have, by dint of a former crime, come into possession of a shavi – a magical animal that accompanies them everywhere, and with it a magical talent (also called a shavi). These animals are at once companions and brands of criminality, and the aposymbiotes of Beukes’s alternate world find themselves the victims of personal and institutional prejudice. The onset of this phenomenon, during the 1980s, marks the divergence of the world of Zoo City with our own.
The protagonist, Zinzi December (great name, no?) is ‘animalled’, going about her various (and often questionable) business with a large sloth draped across her back or stuffed into her bag. His name is… Sloth. And Sloth, incidentally, is a wonderful character in his own right – endearing and timid, he is often disapproving or frightened by his mistress’s actions. For Zinzi is no shrinking violet: sharp and hard-assed, she is an ex-addict-turned-conwoman, struggling to pay off the huge debt she owes to her dealer while also maintaining a relationship with her lover, Benoît. But further complications await her when, because of her own shavi which allows her to track down lost objects, she is employed by an ageing music industry don to find a missing person. Zinzi might be used to Zoo City’s ways, but the search takes her into places she never wanted to go, and dredges up more than she ever anticipated.
There were many things that made this book stand out for me. Firstly, there’s the premise of the ‘aposymbiotes’. Comparisons have been drawn with the daemons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but Beukes’s creatures have an entirely different feel about them. The magic in Beukes’s novel is scruffy, dingy, down-and-dirty stuff – these animals may be magical but they’re as real as they come, complete with matted fur, chipped claws, and gummy, infected eyes. The concept of the shavi is also entirely bound up with the cultural context of the novel: Zoo City is entrenched within South Africa, its plot, its characters, and its ideas inextricable from that location, resonating with its social and political history. Even if, like me, you don’t know much about SA, it’s still clear how very situated Beukes’s story is. What’s more, it has encouraged me to find out more about SA (not that you need to do this to enjoy the book) – and that can never be a bad thing.
Secondly, there’s Beukes’s brilliant writing. The majority of the story is told in the first person, from Zinzi’s perspective, and Beukes brings Zinzi’s voice to life with zest, humour, and downright fantastic prose. Beukes’s style is intelligent, clear, snappy, and often very funny as the reader piggybacks through Zoo City’s streets with Zinzi as their cynical guide. And yet, Zinzi is no ‘tough chick’ stereotype. Beukes has written a thoroughly rounded and fascinating character, and throughout her adventures we also witness her dealing with her feelings for Benoît – the relationship played out in an unsentimental yet affecting way – and also with her deep-set guilt. For, of course, as Zinzi has a shavi, she must have committed some crime… and allusions to a terrible incident involving her brother hover perpetually in the back of her mind, emerging into the narrative in fragments when her guilt comes to the fore.
But Beukes fleshes out her story even further by inserting other perspectives into the novel. Including news articles as chapter epigraphs is by no means a new idea (a great example is in Tad Williams’s Otherland saga – whose protagonist is also South African, incidentally), but Beukes pulls it off with panache. Indeed, these addenda are more than epigraphs, as Beukes donates whole chapters to them. What’s more, they are not only news stories, but also email transcripts, DVD blurbs and viewer comments, and prisoners’ testimonies. This device allows Beukes to step outside of her first person narrator, giving readers a wider glimpse of life in this alternative Earth, and also nods to the vast, varied textual output of our modern, technological world – and to what seemingly small things – like DVD blurbs – can tell us about a society and its views. For me, these interjections also served to highlight just how talented Beukes is. Adapting her writing to these many different voices, with their different biases and agendas, with such ease and authority, Beukes shows that she’s a writer with intimidating skills.
As to Zoo City’s plot, it wasn’t what I expected – and was the better for it. I won’t go into detail, as I don’t want to spoil the surprises that Beukes springs upon the reader. I’ll just say that if you combine magic, murder, and the music industry; sift in crumbling blocks of flats and street gunfights; mix with dread of a strange, black ‘Undertow’ waiting to claim the ‘animalled’; add the blood of a shavi… Well, then you get at least a flavour of what Zoo City is. But to get the full, strange, bursting taste, you’re gonna have to read it.
- Science fiction: now and tomorrow (guardian.co.uk)