Friday, February 27, 2015

Review of Lauren Beukes' Novel Zoo City.

How did Zoo City win the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award? Not that it’s a bad book, it is a very enjoyable, imaginative and well-written novel. The problem is science does not drive its plot, so it is not science fiction. If anything, the novel is fantasy, as its plot’s two main drivers are magic and spiritualism.

Lauren Beukes sets Zoo City in an alternative version of her homeland, South Africa. In this alternative version, criminals are identifiable by the animals attached to them. Not physically attached, but an animal and its master are psychically linked. The animal feels what the human is feeling. The animal has to be close to its owner or they both will panic. The animals also instil minor magical abilities in their owners.

The animals reminded me of the Daemons in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. Beukes acknowledges that similarity by mentioning that series within the novel. But Zoo City is nothing like Dark Materials.

Zinni is the book’s protagonist. She is an ex-journalist who, after killing her brother, winds up with a sloth. The sloth gives her the ability to find lost things by following the threads they leave. She makes some of her income by finding people’s lost rings and keys. She also runs a number of scams where she dupes the gullible out of their money. She is just surviving, living in a part-abandoned block of flats.

While trying to find a lost ring for a client, the client dies. Outside her client’s house, two well-off cultured people with animals contact her. They want her to find a missing pop star. She tells them that her magical ability only helps find lost things, not people, but they are insistent. She needs the money, so she agrees to search for the singer. Her investigating leads her through the decaying suburbs of Johannesburg.

The novel consists of many short chapters. At the beginnings of chapters, often her motives for going or being somewhere are not clear. Usually the connection with her investigation becomes clearer as the chapter progresses. Similarly, the search for the singer seems to conclude well before the end of the novel. Zinni then begins to investigate some murders of animals and their owners. That investigation eventually enlightens her on why the popstar went missing.

Zinni is a tough, intelligent, independent and strong female character, who takes men, rather than submitting to them. She scams people, lies to people, sets people up, and fights back when attacked.

Her sloth – she has not bothered to name it – lets her know of its displeasure with many of her activities. It hisses in her ear or jabs her with it claws if she drinks too much or puts them in danger. It will take a swipe at the face of anyone it does not like who tries to get too close to Zinni. The sloth’s grumpy reactions are an enjoyable counterpoint to some of the serious situations Zinni find herself  in.

Beukes’ writing flowed, like Zinni and her sloth, the words linked together nicely. With Zoo City, she has excelled at word building. She has created a wonderfully edgy alternative Johannesburg, a decaying world full of dangerous and magical people.

At its essence, Zoo City is a fast-paced crime novel set in a different version of reality. It is a world where magic is real, but does not dominate. The novel should be enjoyed by anyone who likes fantasy that mingles the familiar world of today with the strange.


Anthony J. Langford said...

Sounds pretty good though the comparisons are hard to ignore.
Didnt they make a film out of Dark Materials? They never made the rest did they... a shame as I thought Pullman's writing was very good.

South Africa is a rich source of drama. Sounds intriguing.

Graham Clements said...

They made a film of the first book, The Northern Lights, and called it The Golden Compass. Not very good. Nicole Kidman starred and it became more about her minor character in the book than the kids. Another reason why I dislike her as an actress - she was in a terrible remake of the Stepford Wives and a woeful remake of Invasion of The Body Snatchers. I plan to look up other books of Beukes, her most recent has time-travel in it. It's strange, but the book never says whether Zinni is black, her boyfriend is. I pictured her as white, but I never take much notice of author descriptions. Beukes is white - I saw her at the Melbourne Writer's Festival.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Not a fan of her either. Pity when ego's get in the way of the story.