bookgazing: (Default)
[personal profile] bookgazing posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
white book cover shows Zoo City in black letters. on closer examination the letters are made out of joined images showing animals - parts of cities - screaming faces and cars

Like much science fiction, Lauren Beukes' "Zoo City" is built on a tantalizing 'What If?'. What if, after you took someone's life, a physical manifestation of that crime appeared and attached itself to you forever? This premise throws up all sorts of questions. What intellectual theories would people create to explain this manifestation? Would they turn to God or science to try and find some understanding? What would it feel like to be a murderer if everybody could see what you'd done at a glance? And how would people react to you when they saw your mark? Then there's the big question, the one that drives novels: How would these manifestations affect society?

In Beukes' fictional universe, when someone takes a life in "Zoo City" they find themselves left with an animal familiar, a mashavi; the slang term 'zoos', or 'the animalled', is applied to these people. The zoos appear all over the world but the novel concentrates its story in Johannesburg, South Africa, although it quickly references reactions to zoos in other countries. In this version of Johannesburg, all the zoos live in one area colloquially called Zoo City and the fact that the zoos all live in Zoo City, which is essentially a ghetto, suggests that regular society does not react well to zoos - murderers made obvious by their animal companion.

When the reader meets Zinzi, the main character of this novel and a woman with a sloth on her back, she is living in a rundown apartment block, ironically named Elysium Heights in the poor, ghettoised area of Zoo City. In real life many ex-offenders find it hard to get work because their past crimes are so visible which leads to them living in poor neighbourhoods. Many ex-offenders also turn to crime again in order to survive and so does Zinzi who runs 419 scams for a man named Vuyo. It doesn't sound like Zinzi has been able to move far from her crime while marked out by Sloth. Zoos are visible, ex-offenders living free and as such are a constant source of worry and a convenient scapegoat for society's hatred. Fear makes society vicious, so a poor, prejudiced reaction which pushes all the zoos to live in a criminal neighbourhood is not a great surprise.

What is perhaps surprising, considering how people appear to revile zoos, is that despite clear proof of guilt South Africa's government and society react less aggressively towards the animalled than some other governments. In South Africa zoos are incarcerated for their initial crime then tolerated on release although strongly 'encouraged' to keep separate from regular society. Some bars have 'no zoo' policies, landlords are reluctant to rent to 'the animalled', and a clear prejudice exists against released zoos. Whereas, the reader learns that in China zoos are routinely 'executed on principle'. Yeah, bit of a difference there. Considering that the appearance of a mashavi conclusive proves guilt, and that society is not exactly careful about its distinction between murder and self-defence, readers might expect a more severe world-wide reaction to the animalled. Instead, Beukes' novel presents a few different national approaches to zoos, several of which are shown to be incredibly hard. Once readers have spent some time with the novel's charmingly cynical protagonist Zinzi December it's hard not to shudder thinking about what happens to zoos in other countries.

The fact that the novel shows several different reactions to zoos is part of why I came to like "Zoo City" so much. It reminds the reader that the way a particular nation responds to a crime isn't necessarily the one true way to achieve absolute moral justice it's just a choice of punishment created by people. The novel includes stories of zoos suffering in prison and this exposes poor treatment of the animalled, and of violent criminals, as a prejudice and an abuse just like any other. Once out of prison, the prejudice shown to zoos by employers, law enforcement, and the housing market of Johannesburg could align zoos with any real world disenfranchised group. Zinzi actually calls anti-animal slurs 'racist' remarks at one point but, because zoos are targeted by society because they've committed crimes, to me zoos most obviously resemble real world ex-offenders re-integrating into society.

In theory, society is supposed to believe that ex-offenders can be rehabilitated but in reality society is often unwilling or unable to let 'doing the time' stand as final punishment for offenders. In theory, society is vigilant about the rights of prisoners and ex-offenders but in reality society finds it easy to forget about the rights of their own prison populations, or ex-offenders, until strongly and visibly reminded to care about them. Crime and murder is a burden that real life criminals often have to carry for life not just because of moral internal pressures but because of the public pressure that comes to bear on them when society recognises their past crimes. It can be hard to escape. "Zoo City" reflects this real life problem - symbolically, the animals around the zoos necks are both the personal guilt that violent crime leaves inside the murderer and a representation of society's persistent inability to let offenders deal with their own guilt once they serve their sentence. Can you be an ex-offender in this world, the novel asks, if you're always marked out and people respond to that mark with distaste? I'm not attempting to place blame here for how irregularly society and fiction looks at the rights of people who have emerged from the prison system after committing violent crimes — it's a hard thing to look at. The world is full of things to care about and it's easy to let concern about current and ex-criminals slip when there are victims of crime, starving children, abandoned dogs, and political prisoners in other countries to focus our attention on. I'm just saying I appreciate the reminder that "Zoo City" provides and the opportunity to take some space to think about these things while reading a novel.

However, "Zoo City" by no means asks all the difficult questions about the rehabilitation of ex-offenders. It contains no real input from the victims of zoos, the families and friends left behind after a murderer takes a life, and this single-sided story perhaps makes it easier for readers to warm to zoo characters without having to take the full horror of their crimes into consideration. Also, the world-wide response to zoos shown in this novel is necessarily partial, but that partiality may also possibly show up a national or racial pattern of criticism. There's no indication of how major Western countries, I'm specifically thinking of America, which still uses the death penalty, react to zoo prisoners (except when the novel details abuses at Guantanamo, which is rather different than examining how the US might treat zoos on home soil) and free zoos, but the novel does include details of how India and China react negatively to zoos. It's difficult to decide if excluding analysis of how Western countries treat zoos is in line with Beukes' ideas about expanding who tells stories and what they tell stories about, or if this is yet another example of selective fictional reporting which is tied up with racial preconceptions and an unwillingness to look at the deficiences of Western countries.

What "Zoo City" does do is break with a dominant lack of inquisitiveness about criminal rehabilitation. It gets a conversation started and moves beyond the discussion of individual rehabilitation/redemption, which is perhaps more commonly seen in SFF stories, to expand the relevance of that discussion. Like I said, I appreciate that. And the choice to set this story in modern day South Africa, but resist making that country a nightmare for zoos, makes "Zoo City" stand out in a genre sometimes accused of reinforcing a perception than non-Western places are hellish by setting stories of horror, war and destruction in these kinds of locations. In "Zoo City" South Africa is as complicated as any other part of the world; districts full of criminals exist alongside wealthy, urban areas populated by law abiding citizens and although "Zoo City" projects a dangerous, rough atmosphere through its descriptions of Zoo City and other areas there's no suggestion that the geographical location of Johannesburg somehow creates dangerous criminals. It feels as if the crime situation in South Africa is the same as anywhere else in Beukes' fictional universe; ever-present, difficult to manage and visible but not the only aspect of this world.

Considering that Sloth and other animals ensure zoos can never hide their killer status, it seems pertinent to ask how zoos feel about their animals. In one sense, the animals are the visible burden of shame that each zoo must carry and this symbolism is especially prominent in Zinzi's case. She carries a sloth which throws its arms, and its animal connotations of slowness and hanging weight, around her shoulders. Initially she felt Sloth was 'like a Judas hug' or her 'own personal scarlet letter' to Zinzi. That's certainly how other people see zoo's animals, as a detrimental mark and a punishment; one police officer actually says Sloth is 'guilt' — even other criminals try hard to avoid murder if they aren't already animalled. And the fear of the Undertow, a shadowy force which swoops down to take zoos if their animals die, makes being a zoo a fearful, sad experience which Zinzi is reminded of in one memorable set piece explanatory scene.

However, by the time the reader meet Sloth and Zinzi, Sloth is not just a burden she carries around — Zinzi has moved well past hiding Sloth under baggy sweatshirts as she did when she first met her partner Benoit. Now, she and Sloth have a very close, friendly relationship; she calls him 'buddy' and he is obviously affectionate to her. Right from the start Sloth, the animal form of Zinzi's symbolic shame, her guilt over her crime, loved her and over time she has come to accept the way he settles on her back, to get used to his fusses and to love him. The animals can also practically can help the zoos navigate life, as when Sloth steers Zinzi through a dark hallway, or Benoit's mongoose comes to get Zinzi to retrieve her drunk lover from a stairwell. Sloth and the other animals are not some version of Prometheus' eagle, or malevolent spirits, sent to keep the humans they attach to cowed, remorseful, and afraid. The mashavi are helpers, friends, and companions. The reader sees throughout the book that when animals first meet their people they generally rub up against them showing affection and one set of included documents, showing records of prison interviews, tells of the close connection between animal and zoo, of the way the zoos benefit from having their animals around:

'"I got a Butterfly. Keep it in a matchbox. I oughta be pissed off man. You can guess what it's like being in here with a Butterfly. Except for the stuff it lets me do.

See, when I go to sleep every night, I wake up as someone else. For the time I'm asleep, I live the day of someone else on the other side of the world. Man, I've been kids in Africa and India, I was once this old Chinese woman. Mostly I'm poor, but sometimes I get lucky and I'm rich.

What I'm saying is, I can't hate the Butterfly. Butterfly breaks me out of her every night."'

Like Pullman's daemons, the mashavi are more than their symbolic function within the text, a reminder of a zoo's crimes; they are real characters in their own right. Their talents and personalities bounce off the page vividly even when they're only mentioned briefly.

I think, even though Zinzi still clearly blames herself for the death she caused and is worried about the Undertow coming to take her, she also finds that having a visible form of her crime allows her to make peace with some part of her criminal deed. I wonder how much of that self-acceptance comes from living in Zoo City. As crime riddled as that area is, and as hard as life sounds there for Zinzi, it's also a place where characters don't have to hide their animals to get ahead and make friends, or find lovers. When Zinzi describes the first time she met Benoit and his friends she notes that they don't 'carry their animals like burdens…They carried them the way other men carried weapons.'. These men draw strength from their animals and they shape what having a mashavi means by refusing to be ashamed. In Zoo City, the animalled don't have to fend off intrusive questions like 'So what happens with the Sloth when you have sex?' from outsiders as Zinzi does when she goes out into the wider world. And everyone is vaguely on equal terms in at least one way — they can all see that the people around them have killed as well. This equality is kept alive by the fact that 'in Zoo City it's impolite to ask'; the animalled don't ask questions about each others crimes and the animal they end up with doesn't depend on the kind of violent crime they committed, so no one in Zoo City can guess exactly what they did. Living in a world where you aren't seen as other, or freak, must have its benefits even if that world is far away from perfect.

And how much of Zinzi's self-acceptance comes from meeting Benoit so early on after moving to Zoo City? I don't like to imply that Zinzi is transformed for the better by a man but I do think he provides a sense of stability, acceptance, and safety for Zinzi when she is all alone in a difficult position. Mostly though, I have more questions than answers about their relationship. Like, is that all Benoit offers her? Or is his own shavi, or magical talent that comes along with being animalled, 'dampening others… a natural resistance to magic', and as a consequence a resistance to her investigative shavi that sees people's lost things, part of the reason she loves him so? Benoit makes a couple of references to Zinzi's policy of 'No questions' and calls her on her lack of interest in his past. She responds by saying that 'I didn't want to know'. It turns out it may just be Zinzi's rule not to ask questions. Is this part of why she loves Benoit and sticks with him, because his shavi lets her avoid investigating him, thinking about his past as deeply as her own, when she is weary of seeing lost things to be investigated all around? Is that disconnection what allows her stability? And is the way Benoit shares more with her as he prepares to leave her a symbol of that stability being threatened? Is she deliberately cut off from most of humanity, not just isolated by society's prejudice towards her, and is that why even in Zoo City she has no friends? Or is Zoo City just a society where women like Zinzi (tied up with crime, but trying to put out a respectable façade and make some legitimate money) find it hard to make friends?

All the questions and more! In her review Renay said she 'spent a lot of time thinking about the implication of this world' and I found myself asking similar questions. If self-defense victims receive animals just as murderers do then how much worse does society's kneejerk prejudice against zoos look? And what does that say about our society's reaction to finding out about a person's violent crime? Does the threat of the Undertow affect how victims react in desperate situations? And does becoming animalled maybe have accidental benefits for people who were once vulnerable? Here, I'm thinking of the hint "Zoo City" gives about people who kill and end up with a large predator as their mashavi — does this benefit people who were previously victims?

I also found myself asking other questions about the world building. "Zoo City" relies on some highly specific magic and I wanted to know more about how it worked and how society dealt with it. Sometimes, when I really care about a novel, I'm one of those people who wants to work through all the permutations of how the world works. Sue me. Straight away, I found myself wondering why characters who kill multiple times don't end up tied to multiple animals; why only violent, fatal crime earns someone a mashavi; why killers end up with a magical talent alongside their animal. I also wanted to know what theories had been developed about the purpose of these magical talents and what political arguments have been formulated about the free use of them? How does having zoos in society affect the way crime is prosecuted (it must affect wrongful prosecution statistics at least, right?) How do regular animals work in this world — do people keep pets, or is there a reflected stigma around that because of zoos? Does anything affect which kind of animal a character ends up with or is it totally random, as suggested in the prison interview section of the book, and if so why do some of the worst characters in this book seem to have animals so associated with death, like the Marabou? Will there ever be people who turn zoo and still make it in regular society? And a big one — could Zinzi have stayed in her parent's society if they'd supported her? Can money beat the zoo prejudice in this world?

I don't want to make out that because I have so many unanswered questions the book is full of world building flaws. Once you open the reader up to 'What If?' it's hard for the author to control where their investigation leads them and what they will probe. It's rather that "Zoo City" opens up so many interesting avenues through its original central concept that a reader couldn't possibly see all their queries addressed without there being a full on compendium companion to the novel (something I would love to see, with illustrations please). And some of the questions are ones that the people in Zinzi's world don't know the answers to yet, for example they're still developing theories about what causes animal manifestations (which by the way I loved, because this theorising spoke of a society with lots of room to develop and learn much like our own — we don't have all the answers yet either and maybe we never will).

As part of that compendium I suggested, I want a break down of all the countries' attitudes towards zoos. The book does walk the reader through some of the basics of how different parts of the world work by including interspersed materials such as an abstract from a psychological paper, news articles, and those interviews from a book about the experiences of zoos in prison. And Zinzi drops in a lot of informative details through her first person narrative. Still, by the end of the book there's so much more available to explore. For once I'm sad that a book turned out to be a genuine standalone and that there are no plans for a trilogy. Ben Aaronovitch is quoted in the front of my copy and I can't help wishing that we could have a "Zoo City" series to rival his "Peter Grant" series; a set of singular crime stories with heaps of continuous world building and a bonus "A Natural History of Dragons" style book if the books sold well.

Never mind though, perhaps it's for the best that "Zoo City" hasn't been developed into a fantastical crime series. One thing I was a little disappointed about was the abrupt switch from all of this glorious question making world building, as well as strong character development and detailed descriptions of place, in the first half of the book to the second part of the book. This section puts those first two elements in the background/specifically into the service of the crime plot and becomes much more plot focused, although it retains the books typical high descriptive element. I had been reading this book as an SFF concept novel with a side of noir for atmosphere up until that point and, to me, the shift felt rather sudden even though the two sections of the book are clearly marked out by being put in different Parts. I feel like the crime part of the plot is just not as strong as the SFF side in "Zoo City". While the reveal to the mystery of 'what the hell is going on' is an artful mess about with the SFF world that's been set up in the rest of the novel, the conclusion almost has too much going on to allow the reader to focus, and I just wasn't that interested in finding out the solution. Zinzi and her world sparkle so much, and "Zoo City" spends so much time convincing you to be interested in her by making her voice and life detailed that the crime plot would have had to be much more emphasised and more front and centre for it to compete.

Beukes' next book "The Shining Girls" is a novel about a time travelling serial killer, another mash up of crime and SF, so it looks like maybe she's an author as invested in the crime genre side of her writing as in the SFF side — more like Ben Aaronovitch than say China Miéville with his paddlings in the crime genre for SFFnal purposes. I'm hoping in her next book I'll see a more balanced mix between creating a world, creating a style that suits both crime and SFF , and making the crime plot important. Yes that is a quickly dropped hint that I will be picking up "The Shining Girls"… Renay, your work is done, go take a nap.

If readers do see the ending as a slightly off balance resolution, will that make them wish they'd never let "Zoo City" into their house? Or will readers take such a fancy to the world and the tight, sarcastic turns of phrase coming out of Zinzi's mouth that they'll cradle this book to their chests like Benoit carries the Mongoose? Yet another question I can't answer, but maybe you should run the first paragraph check to see if "Zoo City" can help you make up your mind:

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.'

If you're anything like me that beginning is going to hook you in with its humour and the next few are going to make you want answers. You're going to tear through it in two days, finishing it on your lunch break and then count down the hours until the work day is over so you can go home and write all about it. You're going to briefly wish you had a sloth friend for a moment before you remember exactly how that would be achieved. You're going to end up sucked into Lauren Beukes' 'What If?' of choice and nothing will ever be enough of an answer for you.

Other Reviews: Renay, Barking Book Reviews, Bibliophile Stalker, Bookworm Blues, Eve's Alexandria, Follow the Thread, Graeme's Fantasy Book Review, The Honeyed Knot, The Lightning Tree, The Little Red Reviewer, My Bookish Ways, Opinions of a Wolf, Neth Space, The Readventurer, Speculative Book Review, The Speculative Scotsman, Staffer's Book Review, Torque Control, Val's Random Comments, Odd Engine, yours?

Supplemental Materials:

Date: 2013-07-29 06:09 am (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Jodie. JODIE.



Lady Business welcome badge

Pitch Us!
Review Policy
Comment Policy
Writers We Like!
Contact Us

tumblr icon twitter icon syndication icon

image asking viewer to support Lady Business on Patreon

Who We Are

Ira is an illustrator and gamer who decided that disagreeing with everyone would be a good way to spend their time on the internet. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

By day Jodie is currently living the dream as a bookseller for a major British chain of book shops. She has no desire to go back to working in the real world. more? » tumblr icon icon

KJ KJ is an underemployed librarian, lifelong reader, and more recently an avid gamer. more? » twitter icon tumblr icon AO3 icon

Renay writes for Lady Business and co-hosts Fangirl Happy Hour, a pop culture media show that includes a lot yelling about the love lives of fictional characters. Enjoys puns. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon tumblr icon

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently over-flowing. more? » twitter icon pinboard icon AO3 icon


Book Review Index
Film Review Index
Television Review Index
Game Review Index
Non-Review Index
We Want It!
Fanwork Recs
all content by tags

Our Projects

hugo award recs

Criticism & Debate

Indeed, we do have a comment policy.

What's with your subtitle?

It's a riff off an extremely obscure meme only Tom Hardy and Myspace fans will appreciate.

hugo award winner
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios