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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 the familiar can bear to be away from each other, making it obvious to everyone that you’ve done something very, very bad: you’re now the Zoo, or “the animal” or a dozen other names – maybe even seen as a witch, and you’re definitely ostracized, even if your sin was not that great (there is no rule about what sins trigger you to become an “animal”). Zinzi Decembar, a former journalist and former drug addict, spent some time in prison for murder, got a sloth as a constant companion, and now she is trying to pay back the debt created by her former drug habit. She does this by finding missing things (it’s a magical gift she got after a sloth became her companion), Nigerian scams she works for a guy she owes a lot of money to, and then she gets the case of a missing child singer, a new music star in South Africa.
She doesn’t usually do missing persons now, as her gift is working for causes, but the money is good (even if her employer and his co-workers, two zoos, are repulsive), and she becomes desperate to pay off the debt. So she accepts the case and begins her journey to the dark side of Johannesburg. She’ll have the help of her sloth and boyfriend (mongoose zoo), she’ll contact her former co-workers – some will help her, some will turn out to be more trouble than help – but in the end it’ll mostly be her and her sloth trying to survive in the world who perceives them as scum.
In the world Zoo City, if you commit a crime, or if you commit a sin (and who doesn’t?), you could end up with an animal. Your age, ethnicity, race, religion, social status don’t matter in this. The animal you receive has little to do with the nature of your sin/crime. A terrorist can get a penguin, a nine-year-old boy can get a cobra, a petty thief can get a tiger. The “animal” was studied by scientists, but no one managed to find the rule.
In some countries, “animals” end up in jail (even if they haven’t committed a crime, or if their crime isn’t something you’d normally end up in jail for) or are killed by default. In others, they can walk freely in the streets, but are ostracized in other ways, they are constantly suspected of something, they cannot rent apartments in some parts of the city, get rooms in hotels, etc. the fear of “animals” is the fact that anyone can become one of them at some point, because who is without sin?
World of Zoo City is what is most fascinating about this novel. The characters are interesting and believable (it was refreshing to read about an African female protagonist), the plot is good, the writing is flawless, but the world of “animals” caught my attention. Approach to world building in Lauren Beukes Zoo City is a closer approach to science fiction than to urban fantasy: that is, one new thing is introduced (“Zoos”), and then the impact of that one thing on society and on some examples of that society (an ex-prisoner, a refugee from another country, a music producer, some poor kids near the sewers, a famous singer, a terrorist, and so on) is explored and explored in detail without ever overwhelming the main story. What also added to my enjoyment of this novel was the communication between the “animals” and their animal companions – although humans and their animal companions have some basic awareness of each other’s feelings, intentions, ideas, although through this awareness they can communicate their needs to each other , there are no talking animals, the world is not like Aesop’s fables or Narnia.
Zoo City is a fascinating urban fantasy novel with a sci-fi approach and elements of a noir thriller that describes a near-future Johannesburg where the Zoos – people who have been given an animal companion after committing a sin – try to survive in a hostile world, seen through the eyes of a strong, believably flawed female protagonist . It’s a compelling darkly humorous novel that is thought-provoking and an enjoyable read for those who enjoy urban fantasy, science fiction, noir, or just a good, well-written book.
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