Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City is a delightful blend of noir and contemporary fantasy, set in exotic Johannesburg, South Africa. As soon as I read the first chapter, I was hooked. It was so good I read it in less than a day. There’s a lot going on in this story. There’s a killer mystery and an interesting premise (that I’ll get to in a second). But what makes this book is its atmosphere. Without beating the reader over the head with details, you get a sense of the rickety, crime ridden tenements where the main character spends most of her time so so strong that you can almost smell the stink of it. The dialogue is peppered with Afrikaans and several African languages and the cast is wildly diverse. I tip my metaphorical hat to Beukes’s skill as a writer.
Zinzi December is a part-time lost object retriever and part-time 419 scammer until she gets caught up in a mystery that’s a lot bigger than anyone (even the reader) suspects. What complicates matters is that she carries the weight of her brother’s murder on her back in the quite literal form of a sloth. Because if the sloth, she can’t move on with her life. She was once a drug addicted journalist, living the high life. By the time we meet her, she’s off the drugs and in a stable relationship with a man who is reminded of his crimes as a child soldier by a mongoose that lives with him.
The action really gets rolling when, in order to pay off some old debts, Zinzi takes a job tracking down a missing pop star. All of her leads dead end, though she risks her life to try and find out where the girl went. As we read and as Zinzi investigates, there are small hints that something is off. Although neither Zinzi nor I put them together until the utterly thrilling Part II. Until Part II, I was content with the book. It was every interesting, but not spectacular. Part II is bloody spectacular. I hate to give away details in a mystery, but I will say that the missing pop start is just a small part of the bigger crime. It’s interesting that Beukes lets you think it’s all over at the end of Part I.
So, the premise. This isn’t explicitly talked about much in the novel, so you have to pick it up from context. In Zinzi’s world, people’s crimes are readily apparent by the animal that appears shortly after their crimes–even if the death of the other person was unintentional. Throughout the novel, you get news stories and other hints of what’s going on in the rest of the world. If the animal dies, the Undertow–a mysterious and terrifying force–apparently kills the person. It’s never explained where these animals and the Undertow come from, or even that they represent. Are they guilt? Are they punishment? I really hope there’s a sequel to this book, if only to get more clues.
Zoo City was a very enjoyable read, with many things to recommend it. And I’m not the only one doing the recommending. Zoo City won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award. I very much look forward to her next work.