Novel Review: Zoo City

Yellow light slicing across my pillow like a knife would be the appropriate simile, but it feels more like a mole digging its way into my skull through my right eyeball. There is a boy in my bed, or at least I think it’s a boy. It’s hard to judge gender by the back of someone’s head. But I have my suspicions, based on the sandy curls and the snippets of last night that my brain is starting to defrag (277).

South African author Lauren Beukes received too little attention for her excellent debut novel, Moxyland, but critics have been fawning over her follow-up, an alternate history which blends a noir investigation of the music industry with totem-animal toting lowlifes. Is it as good as people say, or are they making up for having until now missed one of the great emerging SF/fantasy writers?

Title: Zoo City
Author: Lauren Beukes
ISBN: 0857660551, 9780857660558
First published: 2010.

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Zinzi December, killer, junkie, and scam artist hangs with sloth to which she’s mystically connected—because, since the 1980s, those who commit serious crimes have had totem animals. In need of money, she employs her ability to find lost things in the service of a missing persons case. The case, of course, turns complicated—and it really is a jungle out there.

High Point:

Once again, Beukes career as a journalist, her awareness of the dark sides of the real world, inform her descriptions of the fantastic. Folk magic and shamanism aside notwithstanding, this world feels more real than that of many a mainstream bestseller.

Low Points:

In keeping with its hardboiled detective/noir antecedents, the story and the case turn byzantine and complex, and the ending throws too much at the reader with too little clarity.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6 Readers will find many elements familiar, but Beukes combines them in ways I’ve never seen before. I especially like the range of animal familiars, and how they affect the individuals and their societies.

Imagery: 6/6 Beukes loves the edges of ideas, to borrow a phrase. She draws us into her world with minimal explanation, but many vivid pictures. We see the slums of Zoo City and a rooftop view of a gang killing: “The Mongoose paces the window ledge, whiskers quivering. The sirens get louder. The Bear lies motionless on the pavement beside the metal frame of a licensed vendor’s stall”(250). We also visit the Rand Club, with its “clingy colonial nostalgia,” “mounted buck heads and faded oil paintings of fox hunts,” and Zinzi’s contact, “in a suit and pointy shoes like shiny leather sharks”(45). Ghost voices call from cyberspace. Skid row life and dark magic ritual both feel equally credible.

Story: 4/6. Beukes has crafted a literate page-turner, but she may lose some readers as the story resolves.

Characterization: 5/6. The main character feels fully realized and, while I didn’t doubt the other characters, too few of them feel really rounded.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6. Her writing style only improves, though I prefer Moxyland.

Overall score: 5/6 Lauren Beukes is a writer to read—and one to watch.

In total, Zoo City receives 35/42