Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

The Worlds Without End “Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge” asks readers to choose books written by authors they’ve never previously read. That being the case, I think the most important question to address in a review of one of these books is – are you now interested in reading more books from this author?

In the case of Lauren Beukes my answer is an unqualified, absolute, as-soon-as-possible-please, YES!

So…ya, Zoo City? I liked it.

The story’s protagonist is Zinzi December, a former journalist turned finder of lost things and writer of email scams. The book sports a good-sized cast of supporting characters, but at the end of the day this is Zinzi’s story. Actually, that doesn’t feel quite accurate. Zoo City provides a window through which we can catch part of Zinzi’s story. Like any “animalled” person she’s carrying around a lot of baggage and history. Many things have already happened in her life before we join in on page 1.

Oh, “animalled”? What’s that you ask?

Sorry, I should probably explain. In the world of Zoo City (and I do mean the whole world, all over Earth – not just the slums of Johannesburg actually called Zoo City) people who carry a certain level of guilt or criminal culpability gain a mashavi, a sort of spiritual companion, which takes the form of an animal. Zinzi’s is a sloth. The mashavi brings the animalled person the benefit of a mystical/psychic power. Zinzi’s is the ability to see connections between people and the things they’ve lost. Being animalled also brings with it a host of problems, social and mystical. Chief amongst these is the fact that if the animal dies the Undertow, a mysterious, shadowy force will show up to do away with the repeat offender. In the world of Zoo City it’s two strikes and you’re out.

Now, as I was saying, this is Zinzi’s story and while I’m going to try to get through this review without dropping any spoilers I want to stress that you should avoid forgetting that fact when you read Zoo City. For awhile I did forget that, and at certain points in the story I became a bit frustrated because I let myself assume I was reading a story I wasn’t actually reading.

Zoo city has elements of a crime thriller to it, but it’s not about a criminal conspiracy.The setting has an unexplained magical phenomenon that first showed up in the world relatively recently, but the story is not about explaining it or fighting it. There are many interesting characters with their own stories, tragedies and dreams, but Zoo City isn’t about any of them. Zinzi has a magical power, but the story really isn’t about her use of it at all.

No, Zoo City is about Zinzi. It’s about the place she’s found herself in and where she might go next. It’s about her choices, her guilt, and her place in the world. Keep that in mind and I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy about it.

For my money, I’ll be surprised if I read a more memorable book this year. I’m frankly worried that I’ve started this reading challenge on such a high note that I’ll be comparing the other books I read to it and find them wanting. Perhaps that’s silly, I don’t know. I just know I loved this book. I loved that it made me reassess what “Urban Fantasy” could be. I loved the fascinating world Lauren Beukes created, and I loved that said fascinating world was there to serve the story, and not the other way around.

Now I just wish I could figure out a way to keep up with this reading challenge, work through my extensive personal backlog of already purchased ebooks, and find a way to squeeze in reading Lauren Beukes’ previous book Moxyland and her soon to be released The Shining Girls. Given how good Zoo City is, I really don’t want to put reading more of her prose on hold.

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