Leaflet Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Zinzi December has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons.
I got Zoo City after the Angry Robot presentation at WorldCon, but I’d decided to read it before then. In the alternate Earth of the novel, if you’ve done something awful, you gain a magical animal companion that grants you a magic ability. If your Animal dies, a dark force colloquially called Hell’s Undertow will murder you within minutes. Zinzi December, a former drug addict and current email scammer (more or less against her will), is accompanied by Sloth and has the ability to feel a person’s lost items and follow threads from an individual to a particular lost item. Zinzi uses that skill to earn some money legally by finding lost rings and suchlike.
As you might imagine, having a visible display that you are (or have been) a criminal presents some issues. Most animalled people (called zoos) in the story live in a slum of Johannesburg, South Africa, called Zoo City. That’s where Zinzi tries to scratch out a life.
The book is told in first-person present tense, which normally annoys me a bit, but Zinzi is such an engaging narrator that I hardly noticed. Her descriptions are pitch-perfect and fresh, and her character shows in every sentence. She’s honest to the reader (if not exactly honest to other characters), three-dimensional, and you can’t help but root for her. Zinzi’s doing her best to make good in a world that won’t see past her Animal, and very few things go right for her. (Speaking of her Animal, Sloth is such a sweet little bundle of externalized guilt.)
The book’s plot is essentially Zinzi trying to piece together the truth of a mystery while piecing herself together at the same time. There were a few plot events I felt were a little less than flawless, but it was such an enjoyable ride I didn’t care.
One thing I really appreciated in this book was that it took place in a setting I’m unfamiliar with (while still being on Earth, of course). The author is from South Africa and she did a ton of research to make her portrayal of Johannesburg slums accurate. The book told a great story while expanding my awareness of other walks of life, locations, and events. That dimension of the book is something I’m especially grateful for because it came above and beyond the engaging characters and story I expected (and found).
All in all, I’m definitely going to pick up another novel from Lauren Beukes. I’ll leave you with some of the first lines of the book, which I think should convince you to go read it now:
“Morning light the sulphur color of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.”
Content warnings: some language, drug references/use, violence, etc.