Book Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

I have waited a long time to read Lauren Beukes’ sophomore offering, Zoo City–it was one of my first TBR adds on Goodreads–and happily, I was not disappointed! In just a few words, Zoo City is a creative, unique, and un-put-downable entry in the urban paranormal/sci-fi thriller genre.

In a futuristic Johannesburg, South Africa, our protagonist Zinzi December is eking out a living by finding lost objects with her burden and companion Sloth by her side. Like hundreds of other people around the world, Zinzi is ‘animalled’–after an incident of wrong-doing and the ensuing guilt, an animal has appeared and has become physically and psychically linked to the offending human. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of order to the type of animal that becomes linked to each guilty person; there is a brief mention of someone in prison with a butterfly companion, for example.

Sound silly? Well, I absolutely loved the concept of the ‘animalled’. Beukes sells it through Zinzi’s wry, no-nonsense tone and the solid world-building. These aren’t just people with animal friends; they are faced with fear and hatred from the non-animalled, lack the opportunity to get jobs, and are haunted by their fear of the Undertow, the mysterious force that kills them if their animal dies. Beukes’ world is helped along significantly by the inclusion of several ‘non-fiction’ chapters that feature academic papers, IMDB pages, and more that show the various ways in which culture and society have adapted to the ‘animalled’ in their midst. (Additionally, this section’s shout-out to Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass was a well-done treat for fans of his series, since most of them will probably be thinking of daemons on their foray into Zoo City.)

Zinzi herself is a wonderful character, flawed, with a tough exterior that hides a heavy heart. She is a former drug addict who is responsible for someone’s death, and has found herself working for her ex-dealer in order to pay off her debts. She ends up taking a missing person job (which she usually spurns) in her desperation, and winds up entangled in a much larger and more insidious plot that targets her fellow ‘animalled’. I though Zinzi’s voice and personality were great; within just a few pages her character had been broadly established, and her snarky pop culture references were very funny. The cast is rounded out by Zinzi’s boyfriend, her employers Maltese and Marabou, teen pop idols, music moguls, and various other crooks and two-timers. Though the setting is quite sci-fi in flavor, the characters and plot is almost entirely thriller/noir, and the question of who to trust is brought up constantly by Zinzi.

The only thing that kept Zoo City from being a five star review, for me, was the pacing. It has the twists and turns of a noir novel, but unfortunately, too many of them seem to come right at the end, and there wasn’t really enough time to follow all the threads, or to let the impact of each cascading action really sink in. Allowing the reader some space to catch their breath would have allowed the various revealed secrets and betrayals some more ‘oomph,’ as well as a better understanding. This is one case where I wish the book had been 50 to 100 pages longer, or had been expanded into a sequel. I loved the unique world Beukes created, and I hope to be able to return to it (either through a movie–reportedly in the works!–or through a reread).

Despite the pacing issues, Zoo City is an incredibly innovative novel that uses some well-established tropes to great effect. The atypical setting, engaging characters, and excellent world-building all make this a novel to remember.

Zoo City was on my to-read list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge. So far, I think this has been my favorite read for the Challenge, which is hosted by Roof Beam Reader!

Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “‘Don’t get too close buddy,’ I warn Sloth. Unofficially there’s a code of conduct but animals are still animals. And animals can be assholes too.”
Other Reviews: The Lightning Tree, Lady Business, The Guardian 

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