Zoo City – Lauren Beukes

Book cover: Zoo CityZinzi December is a ‘zoo’: she has an animal familiar. Relegated to the violent slums of Zoo City when she is released from jail, she and her Sloth survive on her talent for sensing the invisible threads that bind us to things we’ve lost – retrieving them for a fee. Her only rules: no lost persons cases, no emotional ties. When a client dies unexpectedly, she gets sucked into a case to find one of South Africa’s biggest pop stars, and everything gets very complicated quickly.

This is a vividly realised world, horrifyingly believable in the way of the best spec fiction – as long as you accept that some bizarre kink in the recent past has made guilt tangible as a spirit animal (and, if you’re lucky, a useful magical talent). I particularly the interspersed background chapters, which helped with world-building and flavour, and admired the atmosphere evoked throughout.

Zinzi is resourceful and intelligent, which makes her a strong (anti)heroine, but she’s also a cold fish – she has cut herself off from feelings so thoroughly that I found it difficult to judge whether she cared about anything. By the end of it I didn’t really feel I’d got to know her – she was all hard edges and we’d had little to latch onto through all the broken glass. Her sideline in 419 emails was wry, but I appreciated that Benoit eventually called her on it; while she was an unwilling participant at best, it was also clear she didn’t particularly care who she hurt. By contrast, her Sloth was easily the most likeable character in the book.

The ratcheting plot – lost items to lost persons to conspiracy nightmare – bounded along at a pace I’d expect from Beukes, but lost me in the final act when it started to feel first a bit silly (oh look! Everything gets worse! No, much worse! No, MUCH… you get the idea) and then resolved itself in a way that seemed out of kilter with the mood of the rest of novel. (SPOILER [mouse over to read]I wasn’t clear why Zinzi wasn’t in jail given the carnage at Huron’s house; easier to believe she was a co-conspirator than a victim / do-gooder – especially given she’d been working for him). I think we were meant to take her final choices as a sign of her beginning to heal some of her emotional wounds, but I found it hard to believe in.

Overall, this felt good to a point, but if it had been my first experience of Beukes, I might think twice about reading more. Interesting rather than excellent.