This has been on my ‘to read’ list for some time – and obviously, when it won last year’s Arthur C. Clarke award, it got boosted to ‘must read’.
Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit, and a talent for finding lost things. But when a little old lady turns up dead and the cops confiscate her last paycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons.
And that’s the blurb. Which doesn’t really give you much of an idea about what the book is about – however trying to sum up this South African offering in a few lines was always going to be a big ask. Zinzi December is an ex-journalist trying to rebuild her life after having been involved in the death of her brother. But, in this alternate world, those who feel particularly guilty find themselves paired with an animal who may or may not contain the soul of the person they wronged. Beukes doesn’t spend a great deal of time on exposition, but the first person narrative is at times interspersed with other documents – and the academic treatise on the prejudice against ‘zoos’ is examined, along with its causes. Zinzi is bonded with Sloth, who she has to have reasonably close, or die a painful, terrifying death – but in addition, zoos have a gift. Zinzi’s is an ability to find lost things, which she visualises floating above people.
And the Zoo City? A slum area in Johannesburg, inhabited by criminals – mostly accompanied by their animals. This is a vivid and richly different world. I lived in Zambia for a chunk of my childhood and the African slang words and rhythms rang with authenticity, along with the slick, wonderfully worded metaphorical language. Being something of a word junkie, I just loved rolling Beukes’ phrases around in my mouth.
Zinzi leaps off the page with her sharp, street-smart attitude, underscored by the guilt surrounding her brother’s death and occasional shafts of regret for her lost life of privilege and parents… We don’t ever get to the bottom of exactly what happened to Thanda, her brother – or exactly what passed between Zinzi and her parents in the aftermath. Beukes drops a few allusions and the reader is allowed to fill in the gaps, which is fine with me. Essentially, this vivid, scary world and the cast of eccentric characters peopling it have been crafted to tell a whodunit.
So – does Beukes’ plotline match up the excellence of her compelling world and richly textured prose? Well… no, not really. Not that there is anything essentially wrong with the narrative – there were all sorts of interesting little plot twists and cul-de-sacs that worked perfectly well, but were relatively ordinary. In contrast, her world and characterisation is superb, while her prose is mostly wonderful – the plotting would have had to be amazing to have matched that standard. This doesn’t take away what Zoo City has to offer – it is still dizzyingly good. But don’t take my word for it – if you are remotely interested in speculative fiction and haven’t already got hold of this book, then do so. It is one of those books that will still be discussed ten years from now as a benchmark read of 2010/11.