Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.”

“The skyline is in crisp focus, the city graded in rusts and coppers by the sinking sun that has streaked the wispy clouds the  colour of blood. It’s the dust in the air that makes the Highveld sunsets so spectacular…the carbon-dioxide choke of the traffic. Who says bad things can’t be beautiful?”

“I settle on skinny jeans and a surprisingly tasteful black strappy top I borrow from one of the prostitutes on the third floor….when I say borrow, I mean rent. She assures me it’s clean. For thirty bucks, I’m dubious, but it passes the sniff test, so fuck it.”
– Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

In present-day Johannesburg, a new kind of segregation is taking place: regular, law-abiding citizens are kept safe from the criminals, who have all been animalled.

That’s the premise of Lauren Beukes’ brilliantly conceived Zoo City. For reasons no one quite understands, when someone commits a heinous crime (it has to involve murder, it seems), their guilt manifests in the appearance of an animal companion. The human and animal share a link, and the human also derives a special power, or shavi, from this connection. Animals can range from butterflies to tapirs, penguins to panthers. Our main character, the feisty Zinzi December, has been animalled for a few years now because of her role in the death of her beloved brother. Her animal, Sloth, hangs from ropes in her squatter’s tenement when he isn’t draped around her neck, trying to keep her out of trouble.

An ex-journalist and ex–drug addict, Zinzi is out of prison and trying to pay off her substantial debts through various not-always-legal means. For starters, she and Sloth use Zinzi’s shavi, a gift for finding lost things. Zinzi can see psychic threads that connect people to their lost objects, and for a small fee she will crawl down into sewers to retrieve lost rings. But the real money is in the job she loathes: writing scripts for e-mail 419 scams, and occasionally acting the part of the rescued Nigerian princess or savvy South African business partner when the poor suckers being scammed out of their life savings show up in Johannesburg. When Zinzi is hired by a reclusive music mogul to find the missing twin sister in his youthful pop group sensation iJusi, she finds herself thrust back into her shiny, celebrity- and drug-centred old life while she also explores the criminal underbelly of her new world, and it isn’t entirely clear which part is worse, or more dangerous.

Beukes does a good job of presenting us with a world just a little bit different from our own, with vastly different consequences. No one knows for sure why, in the 1990s, animal familiars started seeking out dangerous criminals, who become known as aposymbiots, or “zoos.” No one knows why these people experience intense pain if physically separated from their animal, or why, if the animal dies before the human, the very shadows come to life and swallow the hapless individual whole: the so-called Undertow, which destroys a person entirely, and which seems to be kept at bay by the animal companion. Beukes gives us glimpses into this world through back cover copy of documentaries on the phenomena, Internet message board posts on the subject, physics paper abstracts, religious tracts, and magazine articles. We are just as unclear about how and what is happening as the characters in the book are.

Zinzi is a fantastically realized character, the very definition of spunk, often biting and cruel, just as often sympathetic: she’s in a terrible position but she’s trying to do her best for herself and for the people she cares about. Whether menaced by the people who hire her, whom she refers to by their animal companions as the Maltese and the Marabou; bewildered by her feelings for her married but loving boyfriend Benoit; or conflicted about her place in the world, in this interstice between old life and new, you find yourself cheering her on. She and Sloth are a synergistic and wily team, and though the odds are stacked against them, you want them to win the day.

The writing is sharp, witty and evocative. Descriptions, such as the reclusive record producer’s house smelling like old vase water, Zinzi experiencing a headache “that could rip off the worst hangover’s head and piss down its neck,” or a particularly irritating problem as being akin to a public hair stuck between your teeth, each scene and each bit of dialogue is bang on, and the writing is a joy throughout.

Beukes was born in Johannesburg and currently lives in Cape Town, and Zoo City’s South African setting makes the read all the more interesting and atypical than if it were set in New York City or London. The use of traditional African religious motifs and medicine markets, along with religious and psychological frameworks that are thrust upon zoos, show what a mess the world is. What is shavi, what does it mean to be a zoo, what is Hell’s Undertow, really? All great questions, though it would have been interesting if Beukes had also explored questions of Apartheid or AIDS through the allegory of the animalled in a more overt way. It’s obvious, for example, that the trendy new night club is challenging a taboo when it hires animalled exotic dancers, but it isn’t clear how big a taboo, or how international.  The subtext is there, to be sure, but over all the story is more focused on its neo-noir mystery.

Too, it isn’t clear if the ghettos where the zoos are ostracized into living occur all over the world, or if this is unique to the South African experience. Perhaps Beukes wanted to be oblique about these obvious issues or didn’t want to focus her urban fantasy on these problems—not every book set in Africa needs to be Cry, the Beloved Country. Part of the book’s strength is that it doesn’t offer too many details about the zoo phenomenon, but it is also a weakness, because there is so much more that I’d like to see and know about. It leaves the reader feeling a bit frustrated and wanting.

The ending, too, is rushed a bit, changing tacks from where we think we’re going and becoming something else entirely. The pacing could be a bit more even, and the introduction of characters such as Inspector Tshabalala could play a larger role in the story or not be introduced in the first place. The setting, the ontological “shift,” and the first half the world-building story are more interesting than the ultimate finale and the resolution to the mystery Zinzi is trying to solve.

Despite these minor criticisms, however, Zoo City is a fun, enthralling, dangerous read. Nodding to Phillip Pullman and as unique and creative as Oryx & Crake, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and The Quantum Thief, this is a work of immense scope, well-crafted characters, and great intrigue. I can only hope that Lauren Beukes is planning a second installment in this world. It’s too good a sandbox not to want to play in again.

Four out of five blue pencils

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, published by Angry Robot Books, © 2010

Available at AmazonIndigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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15 thoughts on “Got a sloth on her back: a review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

  1. Great review! But again, why are you so determined to divorce me from all my money!? Stop recommending good books that I feel bad about not owning and read more awful works that make me feel morally superior for not having n my collection!

    1. Hee, I’ll try to read more junk from now on. In all seriousness, it’s actually something I’ve been pondering. I tend not to finish books I’m not enjoying, which of course leads to a skewed set of ratings on the blog. I don’t review books I don’t finish, ergo most books I review I liked. Perhaps I should try to finish more books I don’t enjoy and review those as well…Thoughts to ponder.

      Also, welcome to the blogosphere!

      1. I totally sympathize. But you shouldn’t feel obliged to finish reading books you don’t enjoy just on our behalf… Maybe once every few posts you could write a “Here’s a Bunch of Books I Didn’t Like and Why” in which you explain why a particular book didn’t grab you in the first 10 or 20 pages… just a short little snippet of what didn’t work for you.

        That keeps you from reading bad books, and it keeps us informed of the full spectra of work you’re reading! Just a thought.

  2. That’s actually one of the many things I’d love to see explored in a sequel. If having an animal because more accepted, or perhaps even necessary to have street cred or join a gang, or if someone is desperate for a bit of magic, will these people kill to gain an animal and the associated shavi? Further, if you kill willingly and don’t bear any guilt because of it, do you still get an animal?

  3. Great review, Dee. How do you feel about the parallels to the animal familiars (which their human counterparts also cannot be separated from without experiencing intense pain and discomfort) in The Golden Compass?

    1. Thanks! Beukes gives a clever nod to Pullman’s work at one point, referring to a research project on His Dark Materials in light of the new ontological shift in the world. The function of the animals here is a little different, and my guess is that she’s pulling more from folk traditions of animal familiars than anything else, though she’s certainly aware of and likely influenced by Pullman’s work. That the animal bestows a particular shavi on its human is a neat touch: Zinzi can find lost things, one of her neighbours can weave anti-theft charms into things, etc.

      1. True, it’s a pretty neat feature of the animal familiars that they can bestow humans with a shavi that can help earn the human some money… would it be a bad pun if I said I could kill for such an animal? 🙂

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