Backlist Burndown Review: ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes


It’s my first official Backlist Burndown review! Thanks to Lisa @ The Tenacious Reader, on the last Friday of each month we get to link up with other bloggers who are participating. The goal is to read a book from an author’s backlist that you’ve been meaning to read, but just haven’t been able to get to. I could honestly spend all my time reading backlist books, since I’m so behind, LOL! But trying for one a month is a good start.

This book is also part of my Women of Genre Fiction challenge, hosted by Worlds Without End.

This month I read Zoo City by the immensely talented Lauren Beukes, author of Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls.  I believe this is her second published book, and it couldn’t be more different from Broken Monsters!

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Genre: Adult urban fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date:  2010
Source: Purchased
Pages: 416

The nitty-gritty: A highly imaginative, gritty, dangerous romp through a fantastical Johannesburg, with non-stop action and a unique and unforgettable heroine.

The tea tasted like stale horse piss, drained through a homeless guy’s sock.

Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters was one of my top ten reads of 2014, and I was eager to read more of her earlier works. I decided to choose Zoo City for a couple of reasons. First, I just love the cover and the fact that animals play a big part in the story, and second, I wanted to read something that could count toward my Women of Genre Fiction challenge. Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. The writing sizzles with electricity and is the perfect style for Beukes’ story of magic, political upheaval, and survival in a futuristic Johannesburg, South Africa.

The setting alone should clue you into what kind of story this is. Beukes, who lives in South Africa, clearly has first-hand experience with the political and social landscape of the country (although she does credit many sources for helping her with research). This book was a rough read at times, with graphic violence, terrible living conditions, and nasty characters. But there were also moments of beauty (though fleeting!) and compassion, and man did I love the animals!

Zinzi December lives in Zoo City, a block of decrepit apartments where those who have been “animalled” huddle together. In this future society, a mysterious plague has created a most unusual side effect to murder: anyone who commits it suddenly finds themselves with a personal animal companion. Their animal is psychically attached, and the two can never be separated or they experience excruciating pain. Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth who mostly clings to her back and communicates with her not in words, but with gestures. Zinzi fears what all animalled people fear: the Undertow, a devilish entity from Hell that comes to take them away when their animals die.

When Zinzi acquired Sloth, she was also saddled with a magical ability to “find” lost things, like rings or car keys. One day, she’s about to return a lost ring to its elderly owner, but when she goes to the house, the woman has just been murdered. At the crime scene, Zinzi is approached by a pair of animalled people named Marabou and Maltese (with a Stork and a Dog attached to them) who want to hire her to find a missing teen pop star. Zinzi takes the job, but her life is about to take a turn for the worse.

You may recognize the idea of having an animal companion that is tied to you, if you’ve read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, etc) trilogy. When I first realized where Beukes was going with her story, I was a little indignant, thinking “Hey, you’re copying Philip Pullman!” But then, one of the characters actually references the book, and I realized she is only paying tribute to his books, not copying them. What I loved about the animals in Zoo City is that they act as a scarlet letter of sorts. You can immediately identify society’s criminals because they all have animals as their badge of shame.

Beukes’ Johannesburg, or “Jozi” as it’s affectionately called, is a bleak and crime-ridden city full of drug dealers, magic spells, grunge music and of course, animals. Her descriptions of the city are so vivid, that I felt as if I were right there in the middle of the stink of the slums. The writing is sharp and calculated, each word meticulously placed, and the beat of African pop music is ever-present in the background, which gave this story a relentless rhythm. Lauren Beukes’ writing reminds me so much of Chuck Wendig, that if I had to guess, I’d say the two are twins who were separated at birth!

Despite the animals that populate the story—and if you’re thinking this is a light and fluffy animal story, you need to reset you expectations—most of the characters are not very nice, and even the ones who are occasionally do nasty things. Zinzi is a girl with a horrible past (which I won’t divulge here, but you can imagine something bad must have happened in order for her to be animalled), but she’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Unfortunately, she owes a dangerous drug dealer lots of money and gets involved in an email scam in order to pay down her debt.

Zinzi’s boyfriend Benoît (whose animal is a Mongoose) has quite the interesting story, and their relationship was one of the most honest and poignant ones I’ve seen in quite some time. Benoît lost his wife and three children in a war, but when he finds out that they might actually still be alive, he knows the right thing to do is to try to find them and bring them back, even though he wants to stay with Zinzi. Their relationship was complicated and real, and I loved it.

I couple of things didn’t work as well for me. Although I did come to love all the African words and dialect that Beukes liberally sprinkles throughout her story—they give a wonderful authenticity to it—all those foreign words tripped me up occasionally and slowed things down.

I also thought the plot was a bit of a mess at times. A lot happens in this book, maybe too much. Zinzi is trying to solve some murders. Then she’s meeting with a completely vile man named Vuyo who pays her to participate in email money scams. And she’s taken on the job of finding Song, the spoiled teen pop star who is missing. During all of this she’s trying not to get shot or stabbed by the denizens of Zoo City while keeping her Sloth safe. It was almost too much for me at times.

And yet I loved this book. Once again, Lauren Beukes convinced me that she is one of my favorite authors. She doesn’t shy away from tough subjects or unlikable characters, but underneath all the social commentary and metaphors about how people carry their burdens around with them, is a story with a big heart. Luckily I still have two backlist books of hers to read: Moxyland and The Shining Girls. I suspect I’ll be reading them very soon.

Rating: 8/10

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Posted February 27, 2015 by Tammy in Backlist Burndown, Reviews / 10 Comments


10 responses to “Backlist Burndown Review: ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes

    • Tammy

      I guess my definition of “backlist” is an author’s earlier boks, so that’s what I’ll be tackling for Backlist Burndown. But I totally see you point. Most authors get better the more they write!

  1. I had never heard about this author before but this book sounds really good! I’ve never read anything set in South Africa, and I love books that can bring some information on foreign cultures. I got really curious about the Zinzi’s past too and how she got ”animalled”.