Zoo City is a standalone novel set in a fictional Johannesburg, South Africa. In Zoo City, if you commit a felonious sin, the Undertow comes for you and marks you with first an animal companion that serves as a manifestation of your sin, and second a supernatural talent. Both the animal and the talent are called “mashavi.” The sinners are called “aposymbiots,” and are relegated to living in a slum known as Zoo City.
Zinzi December is an aposymbiot: her animal is a sloth named Sloth, and her talent is tracking lost things. While she prefers not to track lost persons, money is tight. So when she’s offered a sizeable sum for locating a missing young pop star, she accepts. Zinzi finds out, however, that with big money comes big risk.
Zoo City captures a textured, living world, where even the minor characters are vivid. In part, this is due to great dialogue—not the kind of highly stylistic dialogue where everyone sounds clever or cool, à la Elmore Leonard, but one that lends a verisimilitude to this breathing world. Each person sounds distinct enough to convey his or her personality, yet similar enough to constitute communities. Zoo City is written in the first person from the perspective of the articulate Zinzi. Zinzi’s observations and the rhythms of the dialogue together serve as the heartbeat of Zoo City.
World building through literature
I also enjoyed glimpses into this world via its literature. Between certain chapters, we are presented with excerpts of writing: Zinzi’s 419 scam e-mails (if I ever got such eloquently written scam e-mails, I’d probably frame them), interviews with aposymbiotic prisoners (including one whose mashavi is a butterfly suggestive of Chuang-Tzu’s butterfly), and movie reviews of a documentary featuring the first known aposymbiot, a film student turned warlord whose animal was a penguin and talent was psychic torture. I really liked this approach to world-building; it educates and entertains.
Even though the mashavi animals are partly reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s daemons from His Dark Materials trilogy, Beukes’s version is highly original. The animals are in part an embarrassment as a mark of sin, but there are also those humans who adopt real animals for “street cred.” For the aposymbiots who don’t get to choose their animals, however, life can be difficult if your animal is perceived as wimpy. As the Butterfly prisoner explains, “Don’t matter what you did, you got a bad-ass animal in here, you’re a bad-ass too. And it don’t matter how many people you killed, you got a Chipmunk or a Squirrel, you’re gonna be a bitch. Way it is.”
Why should you read this book?
Zoo City is one of the most original and captivating books I have read; I was hooked in five pages. Zinzi is also one of my all-time favorite heroines—she’s spunky, difficult, articulate, emotional, tough, intelligent, and repentant. If you don’t read Zoo City, you’re missing out on one of the best modern books in and outside the fantasy genre.