Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Just finished reading Zoo City by Lauren Beukes which I loved.  I recently read the Shining Girls by this author and on the strength of that novel went to look at her past work and boy was this book worth it!

This story has so much going for it.  It’s set in an alternative world to ours.  Familiar enough for us to easily recognise and fall comfortably into the reading of and yet different enough to contain black magic, familiars and other strangeness.  Urban fantasy at it’s best with a great, if flawed, central character.  A murder mystery that will take you where you didn’t expect to go and a sinister underworld.

A brief explanation.  Zoo City is set in South Africa.  You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve gone a little bit crazy when you first start to read as a lot of the inhabitants have animal companions, and I’m not talking about a little dog that is dinky enough to fit in your bag.  No, snakes, rhinos, bunnies, birds and even a butterfly.  You sort of do a double take and think ‘what gives’ but just bear with the story and everything will be revealed.  Without the aid of major info dumps the author weaves a story that is compelling to read, original and easy to understand.  We have snippets of newspaper articles, interviews and other tv programme transcripts that give us an insight into exactly what has happened to bring the world to it’s present position.  Basically if you’ve been naughty in this world you ain’t ever going to hide that fact.  Killing somebody comes with a whole new stigma. Killing someone means you become animalled.  This isn’t something that any government has brought to bear as a new punishment.  It’s a strange phenomenon whereby after a murder is committed the murderer will forever after be accompanied by a familiar – linked to the soul maybe and a bit like having a constant reminder of your own guilt not to mention rather like being branded.  Let’s face it, if you’re walking round the streets with a strange animal that seems to have an invisible link to you then everyone pretty much knows you did something really bad!  The other key element to being animalled is that each connection also comes with a strange magical talent.  I must confess that I did think of the Pullman trilogy at first and there is undoubtedly a similarity – even down to the fact that if your familiar dies then so do you and vice versa.  But, this isn’t the same idea and doesn’t feel ripped off.  These animals are magical and bestow a certain ability upon their companion but far from being soft and fluffy the gifts they bestow are more often than not a burden and the fact that you have an animal connected to you spiritually is a major drawback.  Plus these animals come with warts and all and the person they attach themselves to is responsible for them.  You certainly wouldn’t want your familiar to die so if feeding cockroaches or leaves is the order of the day then you better get scouting.

The main character, Zinzi December is a great character to read.  She’s definitely gone off the beaten track.  A former addict, Zinzi is accompanied by a Sloth.  So, clearly, she killed someone!  Her special magical ability is to find lost things and at the start of the story she takes on a job to find a missing ring.  Zinzi sees the missing things which form a thread to the person who lost them and she then simply follows the thread to its end.  Of course it’s not always a nice job as a lot of missing items tend to end up in the sewers but, it is a job.  And Zinzi certainly needs a job.  She owes a massive debt to her former dealer and as a result, alongside her poorly paid ‘lost and found’ job, she works scams for him conning those gullible enough to part with their hard earned cash.  Okay, Zinzi isn’t an angel.  Fortunately she also doesn’t fall into the rather two dimensional trap of kick ass ninja female.  She carries a bulging suitcase of guilt and although she does bad things she’s not quite callous enough not to care.  She’s just in a very bad place and surrounded by very bad people and is trying to change.  Streetwise and quick witted she has a bit of a foul mouth but is equally as quick witted.  I couldn’t help liking her to be honest and even more, liking her familiar, a sloth that she carries around on her back like a back pack.  Sloth, which also happens to be his name, has a great little character of his own.  A wild animal he may be but he’s cute at times, charming, sometimes timid and the interaction he has with Zinzi, occasionally slapping or biting people who try to get too close or trying to pull her away from things that frighten him, is excellently done and helps to give you a better understanding of what is actually going on with these people and their familiars.

Zinzi lives in Zoo City, a sort of ghetto full of animalled people.  No pun intended but it’s a dog eat dog existence although having said that some of the people do build a sort of bond.  Zinzi herself has a relationship with  Benoit – himself a tough character who we eventually find out has had a really hard life.  He’s animalled also and scarred both mentally and physically.  Again, although he plays a small part, and although he also isn’t an angel I liked reading about him.

Now I don’t want to paint this out to be gloomy.  It certainly is a gritty story, it has a few grisly murders and alongside that takes a bit of a look at politics and segregation and the way society behaves and it isn’t difficult to see why Beukes used South Africa as the setting which lends itself so perfectly to the story.

I’m not going to elaborate further.  Zinzi basically takes on a missing person’s job.  She doesn’t usually do missing persons and once you’ve read this story you’ll realise why although the final outcome was not what I expected at all.

I was totally gripped with this book.  I liked the way Beukes writes.  She completely draws you in and I think she’s come up with a brilliant concept.

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7 Responses to “Zoo City by Lauren Beukes”

  1. Redhead

    I loved Zoo City so much! i really need to read The Shining Girls. Beukes comes up with these amazing concepts, and I just adore her writing.

    • lynnsbooks

      To be honest I love the fact that she has such a great imagination. Also, the two books I’ve read so far are standalone novels which are actually quite unique in today’s market. I thought Zoo City was brilliant, I could barely put it down for sleep!
      Lynn 😀

  2. Lauren Beukes

    Thanks so much, Lynn. I’ve been very curious about how people who read The Shining Girls first are going to feel about going back to my earlier work.

    • lynnsbooks

      I loved The Shining Girls and couldn’t wait to get hold of a copy. Such an interesting concept and a novel with no 2nd and 3rds to wait for! What a refreshing experience. Then I decided to check out your other books on the back of this. Zoo City has such great reviews that again I couldn’t wait to pick it up. So different than my first experience of your writing. I loved it. Totally eager to see what you do next. No pressure of course. LOL.
      Lynn 😀

  3. Top ten books I’d love to see as a movie or tv show | Lynn's Book Blog

    […] Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – would make a great original movie. […]

  4. My best reads for 2013 | Lynn's Book Blog

    […] Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – this was such an original piece of work, I love the world created, also recommend The Shining Girls by this author. […]

  5. “Our lives are all different and yet the same.” (Anne Frank) |

    […] Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – in which the main character is a South African woman called Zinzi who has been ‘animalled’ – by way of punishment for a crime she has been convicted of.  This is an alternate South Africa where criminals are magically attached to an animal familiar. […]

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