Zoo City is Lauren Beukes’ second novel for imprint Angry Robot, and has been nominated now for numerous awards, including the Arthur C Clarke, which is the reason for me finally succumbing and picking it up. Until now I have found myself oddly reluctant to read Zoo City, due to what I perceived as “hype”. In fact, I now believe it was hyped for good reason – there is a buzz surrounding this exciting novel that is entirely deserved. (I feel there is a difference between hype and buzz – the former driven by publishers to entice people to read novels; the latter created by a groundswell of popular opinion).
Zoo City explores a present day, but alternate, Johannesburg, following the story of Zinzi December, one of the animalled – people who are linked to animals due to crimes they have committed in the past. The eponymous Zoo City is the place in Johannesburg where the animalled live, ostracised by the rest of the population. Zinzi lives hands to mouth, sending illegal spam mails to pay her debts, and providing a service to people who have lost items. Her one rule is never to find lost persons, but she can’t resist the money offered to find one half of a famous singing duo – this, however, might be a decision she’ll come to regret as she stumbles across a rather horrific series of grisly murders.
Lauren Beukes writes with a real “zing”, an exuberance celebrating the darkness, the vivid life, the uniqueness of Johannesburg. The location of her novel is as much a character as the many bizarre people who share Zinzi’s life, and she is not afraid to show the grim aspects of living in South Africa.
The pace of Zoo City is fast and frenetic – almost too fast towards the end of the novel, where the mystery of the murders is revealed in a series of punchy scenes that arrive furiously and left me wishing I had more time to take on board everything that was happening. Beukes could have quite easily put in an extra few hundred pages, and I think it might have served this particular novel well. Usually I would complain about additional pages for the sake of it, but, with Zoo City, I actively wanted to read more about Zinzi.
Zinzi is a character to love, accompanied by Sloth, her particular animal and the outward appearance of her guilt. She is spiky, determined, and compassionate despite the difficulties of her life. Her dialogue is sharp and funny, and she lights up every page. She is not a character who requires any man to define her – in fact, the men she associates with are almost incidental, in some respects. They help drive the plot forward, but do not drive Zinzi’s actions, which is a refreshing change and something I appreciated. In addition, Zinzi is not some kick ass babe, who wields weapons and takes on enemies with gay abandon. She uses her wits to survive, and the experience she’s gained through her time as a journalist and then in prison. The reason I mention this is because Zoo City reads like an urban fantasy, but Zinzi is not your usual clichéd character.
The prose in Zoo City helps to keep the pace driving forwards – it is scattered with local colloquialisms that add flavour to the style of the writing. This is not a graceful method of writing, but it is incredibly vital and relevant.
In all, Zoo City is both fascinating as a study in modern literature, and exciting to read. It is one of those books that feels incredibly special as you read it, with a timeless quality. I hold my hands up: I should have read this months ago. Zoo City is a wonderful novel, and Lauren Beukes has instantly become a go-to novelist of mine. A stunning achievement.
Arthur C Clarke thoughts: Ah, here's the crux of the matter.... The award is for science fiction, but I think Zoo City is urban fantasy. However, with the Clarke Award having set the precedent last year of allowing a non-sci-fi (as stated by some) novel to win, then why not allow Zoo City to win? Personally, with other "true" science fiction novels on the shortlist, I think Zoo City will struggle to win - especially with the quality of some of the other works. However, the only factor that should mean it doesn't win is the fantasy vs science fiction aspect of the discussion: based purely on excellent writing and brilliant plot, Beukes would walk it...