RogerBW's Blog

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes 20 July 2018

2010 contemporary fantasy. In a decaying alternate-present Johannesberg, Zinzi December is one of the animalled: people who, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, have acquired an animal companion and magical powers. Of course, that's not entirely a good thing.

As an SF reader, I expect a book with a premise like that to be about exploring it: why have these animals started appearing, and why only to people who've done something they're ashamed of; what is this mysterious Undertow that they're all so scared of? But that isn't this book; there are some scene-setting secondary texts that mention this stuff in passing, but what this is about is the people, Zinzi and her friends and enemies, constantly screwing each other over to get ahead while some of them, at least, try to cling on to the idea that they aren't bad people. Mostly.

The odd thing, therefore, is that Zinzi doesn't actually have all that much effect on the plot. The major villain's plan mostly comes off, and while it goes awry in the end that's not because of her actions. She's a spectator at the key scenes, and that lessens the effect of the narrative that's trying to tell us who she is; in the end she isn't anyone particularly important. Meanwhile, for a book about a world with magic available to the common struggling people, there's not even very much magic going on.

In spite of all that, though, it's an enjoyable book, for its vision of hand-to-mouth urban life in a South Africa packed with refugees; it's more of a picaresque wander than a conventional narrative progression, and indeed in the run-up to the climax when Zinzi starts revisiting previous locations there's something of a loss of momentum. Distrust of the animalled seems to have completely replaced racism, to the point that I didn't notice anything more than a passing mention of skin colour. Zinzi isn't either excessively perfect or an excessive screw-up (as far as we know; she thinks she's responsible for the death of her brother but that's another point that's never really expanded on, and what we're told doesn't seem entirely consistent with her having done prison time for it).

If only she had a bit more agency this would be great stuff; as it is it's still pretty impressive, and I'll keep a look out for more by Beukes.

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