Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot, 2010)

From the back cover: "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."

Zoo City is not an easy book to summarize. It's set in present day Johannesburg and follows Zinzi December, a former journalist and drug addict, as she tries to find one half of a pop band who has disappeared. Zinzi has spent time in prison for killing her brother. She's also been animalled, like others who have morally transgressed; twinned with an animal familiar that is symbiotically attached to her and also given a special power which acts as both a blessing and a curse. In her case, she carries round a sloth who is atuned to her thinking and she is able to find missing items. A new, unexplained phenomena around the world, those animalled are marginalised, living with stigma and on the edges of society. Zinzi squats in Zoo City eaking out a living from her special talent and by writing email scam letters for a gangster designed to get the gullible to part with their cash. As she tries to track the missing pop star she's drawn into a deadly conspiracy where she's being set up as the fall girl.

Zoo City is a highly imaginative and creative story; a kind of modern version of cyberpunk - blending new cultural forms and urban dystopias into a rich kaleidoscope of colour and action. Indeed, it reminded me of William Gibson circa Virtual Light. This is no bad thing. Beukes is something of a 'word pimp' in her own words, fashioning some nice prose and a richly realised world. I suspect it is a book that needs a second reading to fully appreciate all the nuances of the story. There is so much going on, some of which is only obliquely explained, that it sometimes a little difficult to follow what is unfolding. And whilst the story is engaging and clever, it is also seemed a little uneven its telling. That said, Zinzi December is an interesting character that's fun to spend some time with and the book is populated with other colourful folk and subcultures. Overall, a entertaining read that works on different levels.

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