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cover of Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit — and a talent for finding lost things. But when her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her lastpaycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons. [source]

Zoo City is the second novel by Lauren Beukes, and tells the story of a world that's been touched with magic, where people who have committed violence against others find themselves with animal familiars. This novel had the potential to be a mess given its premise. After all, we've already had a genre-defining narrative about animals and people and I have yet to hear of another author that does what Philip Pullman does with his humans and dæmons with such grace. I was fascinated to find that Beukes not only takes on the challenge of living up to this narrative and succeeds, but also wins at paying homage to Pullman as well as making the animals and the humans they're attached to her own distinct creation.

The premise of this book — Zinzi December with a Sloth on her back — wasn't what drew me to this book. It was the cover art by John Picacio. The art is fabulous. It captures Zinzi; she's forthright and afraid of nothing, in a shirt with black and white bars which speaks to her present life. It features two supporting characters, Mark and Amira, in a way that they and other Zoos must be looked at by those without Animals. Their Animals are so much a part of them that can't be separated from the person at all. The cover art dehumanizes them without doing it to Zinzi, because this is her story and she treats them the same way throughout the novel. I don't make it a habit to follow artists, but I did start following John Picacio. It's so well-done, especially the characterization implicit in the art. None of us are exempt from our prejudices, after all. Picacio and Beukes introduce us to a character who is not a bad person, but is desperate and dangerous. Zinzi reminds me of the most brilliant person you could want to make friends with, but while doing so you realize that you're drowning in the waves they make just living their life. She meets your eyes when you first see her. Do you want to get on this ride?

The opening paragraphs of this novel are a one-two punch of worldbuilding and contexts that unravel throughout the book. Neither Beukes nor Zinzi give anything away they don't have to, and we travel with Zinzi through this urban fantasy crime drama learning about her past only in snapshots. Zinzi plays things close to the chest. She lives her life in negatives — what she doesn't have, what's she losing, and what she's lost.

Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg's skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.

Shielding my eyes — morning has broken and there's no picking up the pieces — I yank back the sheet and peel out of bed. Benoît doesn't so much as stir, with only his calloused feet sticking out from under the duvet like knots of driftwood. Feet like that, they tell a story. They say he walked all the way from Kinshasa with his Mongoose strapped to his chest.

The Mongoose in question is curled up like a furry comma on my laptop, the glow of the LED throbbing under his nose. Like he doesn't know my computer is out of bounds. Let's just say I'm precious about my work. Let's just say it's not entirely legal.
(pg 7)

So many threads and hints: Benoît's past, Zinzi's work, the way Beukes makes our first animal introduction not Zinzi's animal, but Benoît's, and wields her words with exacting precision. She manages to drop fantastic metaphor and small hints of Zinzi's life and Benoît in this way all throughout the novel. There's never one moment when Zinzi tells us — or anyone — her story. Zinzi only shares pieces of her life through reference and quick reflection, because pieces is all she has left.

I didn't know what 419 scams were when I started this book. I knew of them — we all do if we have an email account — but I didn't know they had a specific name. It's a desperate sort of life Zinzi has carved out for herself. She runs these scams to make money for people who own her drug debt from what she calls FL: Former Life. Of course, she also takes work on the side by finding lost things — a newfound skill, with her newfound life. Sloth, as well as Zinzi's skill at finding lost things given to her, are both known as mashavi:

Mashavi: — a Southern african word (spec: Shona) used to describe both the preternatural talents conferred by an aposymbiot and the aposymbiot animal itself. (pg 213)

The people and their animals are so superbly integrated into this story: through the ways Zinzi and the people around her talk about them, the way they fit into the culture of this world with a concept that already existed, and the documents that Beukes inserts into the story at regular intervals — more on that in a bit. You gain an animal by any kind of killing: outright murder, accidental manslaughter, or assassination and possibly other types of murder in which you are still culpable. I still believe that Zinzi's story is unclear: that her guilt clouds her memory and that her experiences with drugs make it hard for her to judge what happened objectively. We know what the culture thinks and what Zinzi feels, but for all that Zinzi was a journalist in her former life, her bias about the death that changed her life blocks us from truly knowing. Zinzi leaves enough clues for you to make up your own mind about why she has Sloth and why she's mashavi. It's all wrapped up in drugs and death and guilt. She's lost something and gained something else — an animal and a gift for finding what people have mistakenly left behind.

The problem with my particular gift, curse, call it what you like, is that everybody's lost something. Stepping out in public is like walking into a tangle of cat's cradles, like someone dished out balls of string at the lunatic asylum and instructed the inmates to tie everything to everything else. On some people, the lost strings are cobwebs, inconsequential wisps that might blow away at any moment. On others, it's like they're dragging steel cables. (pg. 13)

Beukes builds the world with all these people and their animals up with one-off comments and asides. Some compare the privileged to those who lack it and shine a light on the current of racism that doesn't pretend to be under anything. You could skim it off the top in thick chunks. Some are wild and some are heartbreaking.

All it takes is one Afghan warlord to show up with a Penguin in a bulletproof vest, and everything science and religion thought they knew goes right out the window. (pg 31)

We meet the character this quote is referencing a few times: the first extreme, public case of the Zoos and the Animalled. During one of the references to him, which is another narrative break for documentation (which does a lot of heavy lifting for enriching the world and making Zinzi's commentary even bleaker), Beukes names what's happened to the world and some of its people: Acquired Aposymbiotic Familiarism. I laughed when reading the recommendations in this. Good job, Lauren Beukes. Good job. :)

The truth is we're all criminals. Murderers, rapists, junkies. Scum of the earth. In China they execute zoos on principle. Because nothing says guilty like a spirit critter at your side. (pg 16)

I spent a lot of time thinking about the implication of this world. Self-defense? What happens when laws favor those without animals, when society views them as automatically unworthy to live? What happens to women in those places? What happens to children? What happens if the reverse is true and laws favor the Animalled?

The parallels between what the Zoos go through and what many marginalized groups have suffered is not subtle. It's a smack in the face and an accusation that the world is too scared, too suspicious of the unknown, and devoid of the necessary empathy which is only provided by small pockets of the good-hearted and understanding or social services. We marginalize out of fear, desire for power, but most often we marginalize because sometimes it's easier to do so than risk losing anything we can claim as ours: our understanding of the world, our social structures. We do this even if by choosing this path, we've already lost.

"Animalists everywhere," Mark says through clenched teeth, as the guard raises the boom and waves us through. "They'd bring back the quarantine camps if they could."

"What do you call Zoo City?" I say.

"Just be glad we don't live in India," Amira says.

Mark reves the Merc unnecessarily. "Because who knew there was a caste
below untouchable?" (pg 107)

That awkward moment where you have to remind people of your difference; that you're not accepted anymore. That moment where you Other yourself.

"Zinzi? Holy crapola. Where are you?"

"Downstairs. Can I come up?"

"No. Wait. I'll come down. Meet me at Reputation. It's the hotel bar across the road."

"I think they have a policy," I says, leaving it hanging.

"Oh. Oh right," he says.
(pg 136)

We know South Africa and how tough it is for Zinzi to move and operate in society with Sloth, but Beukes allows us to see small pieces of where it's worse. The picture she paints of the world with the Animalled is a depressing one. The positive representations of this world are still bleak for those with animals, whatever their crime, and whether they deserved it or not. Johannesburg and South Africa's tenuous relationship with the Animalled are front and center of this novel. The city and setting fold themselves around you as you travel with Zinzi. She's comfortable here and it shows in her familiarity with her surroundings and her snide and sometimes bittersweet commentary on places she can no longer go freely even in a city she still feels like she belongs to and that used to belong to her. This fictional version of Johannesburg lives and breathes through Zinzi's experience: the landmarks, the culture of excess and utter absence of the basic necessities to live, the communities and their personalities.

This book is teeming with awesome chances for fanfiction. Hell, His Dark Materials is a go-to fandom for crossovers so of course I think this book should follow in its footsteps. I'm not a Yuletide girl, otherwise I know what I would be requesting. Maybe someone else will request it for me and I will get to enjoy it as a lurker. How do Zoos function in society across the world? In the rural American South? In Ireland? In Japan? Ugh, I would read all the fanfic about this book.

Of course, there were parts I found hard to believe or actively confusing, such as the violent emails. That's a bad way to describe them, but it's related to a type of medicine and culture I am really unfamiliar with. I understood their purpose at the end but it was so disconnected from everything else Zinzi was struggling through with her job finding a missing girl — that she never wanted to take in the first place — and her relationships, both good and bad. The meaning gets lost until the reasoning for it is directly on top of you. There were also odd bits of adventure that felt a little like I was on the "And here is horrific underground Johannesburg!" tour; scenes and characters that made zero sense in context but turned out to be important much later. But I forgive this because it was so easy for the story and writing to carry me along to the next page. I, unlike other readers, didn't mind the ending: it tied off the threads that confused me, culminated in such a way that while probably obvious to people who read a lot of crime fiction, only reinforced the bleakness of the world: the greed, the common desire to escape our pasts at the expense of other people, and how easy it is to drag the people you love down.

Zinzi and Benoît's story is both heartbreaking and infuriating. The parallels between Benoît's past and Zinzi's present especially were unrelenting and miserable once it's clear what Zinzi has unthinkingly done for the second time in her life.

What makes someone a good person? When does a person deserve it, whether "it" is death, being jailed, or being left behind for something better? How much is too much? Is mashavi a gift or a curse, or is it all just up to the people we are? In the end, who should we call Animalled, the people with the animals, or the rest of the world that reacts so much like animals themselves? Both?

I started this book loving Zinzi and I finished it full of respect for her determination and will to survive, but also a little scared — of her and for her. In the end, Zinzi December proves that she is both an event and an event horizon.

Other Reviews: Jodie, Eve's Alexandria, Staffer's Book Review, Val's Random Comments, Tenacious Reader, yours?

Supplemental Materials:

Date: 2012-10-10 08:18 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I'm so glad this book is in the humble bundle :D #MINE As I told you before, you sold me after one paragraph.

Date: 2012-10-10 05:58 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Great review.
I really enjoyed this one when I read it a few months back, bought her Moxyland as well but have yet to actually read it.

Also how cool that you got tweeted by the author :)

Fence -

Date: 2012-10-14 01:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I saw this in a used bookstore in Macon, and I knew I should have picked it up. (I bought The Art of Pocahontas instead.)


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