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Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, Book Review

Imagine a world where, after committing a crime, you find yourself with a familiar animal. Neither you nor acquaintances can stand to be away from each other, making it obvious to everyone that you did something very, very bad: now you are a zoo or an “animal” or a dozen other names – you may even be considered a witch and you are certainly ostracized, even if your sin was not so great (there is no rule that causes sin to become an “animal”). Zinzi December, an ex-journalist and ex-jump, spent time in prison for murder, got a sloth as her constant companion, and is now trying to pay off the debt her former drug habit created. She does this by finding missing things (it’s a magical gift she got when laziness became her partner), Nigerian scams she does for the guy she owes a lot of money to, and then she takes on a case of a missing child singer, a new music star in South Africa.

Now, she doesn’t usually go missing, because her gift works for things, but the money is good (even if her employer and his partners, two zoos, are repulsive) and she becomes desperate to pay off her debt. So she accepts the case, and her journey into the dark side of Johannesburg begins. She will have the help of her laziness and her friend (a zoo with a mongoose), she will contact her former partners – some will help her, some will cause more problems than help – but in the end it will mainly be her and her laziness trying to survive in a world that sees them as scum.

In his world Zoo City, if you commit a crime or commit a sin (and who doesn’t?), you may find yourself with an animal companion. Your age, nationality, race, religion, social status doesn’t matter in this. The animal you receive has little to do with the nature of your sin/crime. A terrorist can take a penguin, a nine-year-old boy can take a cobra, a petty thief can take a tiger. “Animals” have been studied by scientists, but no one has been able to find a rule.

In some countries, “animals” go to jail (even if they haven’t committed a crime or their crime wasn’t something you’d normally go to jail for) or are killed by default. In others, they can walk the streets freely, but are ostracized in other ways, always suspected of something, unable to rent apartments in certain parts of cities or get hotel rooms, etc. What adds to the fear of the “beast” is the fact that anyone can become one of them at some point, for who is without sin?

His world Zoo City is the most exciting thing about this novel. The characters are interesting and believable (it was refreshing to read about the African female lead), the plot is good, the writing is flawless, but it’s the world of the “lives” that caught my attention. The World Building Approach to Lauren Beukes Zoo City is closer to the science fiction approach than to the urban fiction approach: that is, a new thing is introduced (the “Zoos”) and then the impact of that one thing on society and on certain examples of that society (an ex-con , a refugee from another country, a music producer, some poor kids near the sewer, a famous singer, a terrorist and so on) is explored and explored in detail, without ever crowding the main story with it. What also added to my enjoyment of this novel was the communication between the “animals” and their animal companions – although humans and their companions have some basic awareness of each other’s feelings, intentions, ideas, though through this awareness they can communicate needs for each other, there are no talking animals, the world is not like Aesop’s Fables or Narnia.

Zoo City is a gripping urban fantasy novel with a sci-fi approach and noir thriller elements that describes a near-future Johannesburg where zoos – people who have acquired an animal companion after committing a sin – try to survive in a hostile world, seen through the eyes of a strong, flawed female protagonist. It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking novel with dark humor and a delightful read for those who love urban fantasy, science fiction, noir, or just a good, well-written book.

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