Or why you should read Zoo City
by Lauren Beukes
Zoo City is a supernatural noir novel set in Johannesburg. In the world of Zoo City people culpable of something terrible are cursed with an animal as a physical embodiment of their guilt. These animals are spiritually tethered to the guilty person who cannot stand being away from them. Worse if the guilt-animals die, their humans are killed by a mysterious black force called the Undertow. The combination of beastly guilt stigmata and looming hellish demise leads to the "Animalled" or "Zoos" to be largely ostracized by their society. However, the guilt-animals do come with a gift, granting their owners supernatural talents which can sometimes make the Animalled valuable. Zinzi December is a recovering drug addict and ex-convict who has been animalled to a sloth. The sloth gives Zinzi the ability to find lost things, which allows her make a modest living hunting for lost trinkets and keys, but absolutely not, under no circumstances, missing people. However, when a tween pop sensation goes missing, Zinzi is offered enough to escape her drug debt to find her. But when you go looking for something missing in Johannesberg sometimes all you find is trouble.
Zoo City is a great book. It has all of the atmosphere and pomp of the best pulp detective stories, but with the added spice of the complicated cultural milieu of urban South Africa. It's a novel that definitely presents a great, gritty mystery and a great urban fantasy premise, but which is ultimately more interesting for how it explores these premises in the unfamiliar and interesting world of Johannesburg. Zoo City is also significant for the way it explores social exclusion. The way animalled people, with their guilt talismans, are exiled form society is a brilliant metaphor for how criminals, the poor, drug addicts, sex workers, and the misunderstood are ignored and rejected by population for their perceived misbehaviour. Which is a universal human problem worth thinking more about. I mean, Zoo City is definitely an exciting and stylish noir story, but it's also got a substantial and socially conscious core. It's, well, a great book.
I would recommend Zoo City to just about anyone. Some grown up stuff happens, so I might limit the rec' to mature readers, but if you are a grownup person this is a book you ought to check out. It is accessible, entertaining, and tense while still dealing with big important themes. I had trouble putting down both as a story and as a smart exploration of themes. Zoo City is also just very different from any other book I've read: it has a perspective quite different than what you usually encounter in English genre fiction. I think you'll really enjoy it.