Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Another award winning novel that I didn’t much care for.  I had a very hard time getting into “Zoo City” so take what I have to say here with a grain of salt.

“Zoo City” takes place in semi-modern day Johannesburg, South Africa.  The title refers to a slum section of the city where those who have been “animalled” live.  Being animalled is like having your own familiar.  The way an individual is animalled is a bit vague, but it has something to do with committing a serious crime.  Commit a serious crime and soon thereafter an animal will appear at your side and you are forever tied to it.  Separation from the animal causes immense pain and the death of the animal causes the human to be drawn in by the Undertow which kills you.  Animals can range from lions to butterflies and all have extended life spans and human.  The animals also unlock some sort of magical power in the humans.  This power varies from person to person.  Being animalled is like wearing a scarlet letter and the affected individuals are usually scorned by society.  It is an interesting concept with lots of avenues of possible exploration, but they are mostly avoided in this book.

The main character is Zinzi December who is animalled with a sloth.  She is an ex-druggie that owes lots of money to all the wrong people.  She is slowly paying that money back by using her magical power offinding lost things for people for money and running spam e-mail scams (of the Nigerian Royalty needing seed money to release a vast fortune variety) for the person to whom she owes the money.  She became animalled by doing something that led to the death of her brother.  What that something was is not entirely clear but it had something to do with drugs.  I find this incredibly frustrating.  Why even go into how Zizi got animalled if you’re not going to give the whole story?  It would be better if they simply left you to wonder how Zinzi got animalled.  There is a lot of stuff to choose from.

The plot centers around Zinzi being hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the female half of a set of twins who comprises his biggest current hit band.  She disappeared days before the band’s new album is supposed to drop.  The money is good so she goes against her usual rule of not using her power to find lost people.  What follows is a series of really hard to follow events leading up to the discovery of the lost girl.  This discovery is entirely anticlimactic and everything that follows afterwards makes no sense.  It is not entirely clear why Zinzi took the job when she certainly could have broken her rules and made a lot of money for finding missing people long before this.  It is especially not clear why Zinzi would continue on the case when it becomes abundantly clear that there’s a lot of bad mojo surrounding the twins and the music mogul.  And it makes no sense whatsoever why Zinzi would continue to pursue the case after the twin is found.

Outside of the main plot, though, there are some really cool, if depressing, views into South African life.  The peeks into the 419 fraud e-mail scams is legitimately interesting.  Zoo City itself is supposed to be a fairly real life look into one of Johannesburg’s suburban ghettos.  There are also glimpses into African issues like child soldiering, rebel warlords, and war refugee families.  These are all side stories but I found them much more compelling than the actual main plot.

I finished reading “Zoo City” with so many unanswered questions.  Maybe my inability to get into the book made me miss some key points in the plot and that’s why I have so many questions.  It is a possibility.  But I am a fairly astute reader and, while I can pass a point or two on something I just didn’t pick up on, this book just had too many of them for me to recommend to anyone.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention one other thing that I though was pretty cool about the book.  Race was almost completely invisible while being set in a country known for it’s racial issues.  At no point was I conscious of the race of any of the main characters.  It wasn’t until probably three quarters of the way through that I realized it.  It’s quite an accomplishment in my book.