One thing that is sure to put me off reading a book is to describe it as a ‘gritty, urban fantasy’. I am an escapist reader and I have an uneasy, love-hate relationship with dystopian fiction and dark fantasy. Despite my literary-snob pretensions I secretly long for happy endings. The only things that overcame my aversion to this category and motivated me to pick up this book were personal recommendations and its South Africa context.
As it turns out there were many things I enjoyed about this book but firstly; the South African setting. I lived in Johannesburg for eight years, ten minutes’ drive away from Hillbrow (‘Zoo City’) so many of the settings in the book were very familiar. And it is not just that it was familiar; Lauren Beukes brought it to life—the vibe, the pace and the slang of Joburg were pitch-perfect. I did wonder if the cultural references might have been off-putting or confusing for international readers but the book did very well in the UK—winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award—so apparently not.
The second thing I loved was the really imaginative concept behind this alternative dystopian world. It lends from the animal familiars of Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials—but adds a new dimension. The animals are not universal—only people who have blood on their hands receive an animal. They are albatrosses—signs of guilt. Zinzi’s sloth represents her responsibility for the death of her brother. This physical manifestation of difference allows all sorts of stigmatisation and segregation and the formation of ghettos such as Zoo City. The animal familiars do come with some advantages though—other magical gifts. Zinzi’s gift is for finding things: ‘Lost a small item of personal value? I can help you find it for a reasonable fee. No drugs. No weapons. No missing persons.’ Against her will she gets sucked into searching for a missing girl—half of teenage pop-duo sensation ‘iJusi’. But the case is more complicated than it first appears.
Zinzi December is a fantastic heroine—she’s tough, she’s brave, she’s cocky, but she’s not perfect. Far from it; she’s an ex-con, ex-drug addict, paying penance for her past life—forced to write scam emails by her former drug dealer to pay off her debts. She’s the underdog—she’s up against criminal overlords and the threat of doom represented by the sinister ‘Undertow’. It a fast-paced, gripping, wild-ride of a story—I couldn’t put it down.
Mention should also be made of the very striking cover design—the edition I have is published by Angry Robot and the cover illustration is by Joey HiFi. It is exquisite—a greyscale sketch collage of animal fur, feather, faces and urban landscape forming the title, and another carrion collage on the back of the sinister Marabou stork. It’s the kind of image that sucks you in—both fascinating and horrifying.
It’s great to be pleasantly surprised by a book—I am really looking forward to Lauren Beukes’ new book, The Shining Girls, now.