review by Vianne Venter

Published by Angry Robot/Jacana
PB 384pages
RRP £7.99 (Kindle £3.59)
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In Zoo City, it’s impolite to ask.

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.

From Issue 12 (August 2011)

EVEN BEFORE IT WON the coveted Arthur C Clarke award, Zoo City was leaping off bookstore shelves like it had fleas. Which it kind of does. Fleas are the least of what’s eating at the novel’s lead character, Zinzi, though. The girl with the sloth on her back has bigger beasties to fry, though not by choice. Between 419 scams, dead clients and missing teenage pop stars, Zinzi’s about to run straight into the ugly side of a fantastical Jo’burg. And it’s only going to get uglier.

Zinzi is a clever, street-smart, wry, damaged, and surprisingly sympathetic narrator for all that. A unique kind of anti-heroine, reluctantly shouldering her mashavi – the gift for finding lost things. That she will be lured into her least favourite kind of work – missing persons – is inevitable, because everyone in Zoo City is lost in one way or another. And that’s what Zinzi does: she finds lost things.

Zoo City is the literary equivalent to District 9, and it’s done as much to bring South African genre fiction, and the city of Jo’burg, to the attention of international audiences. Beukes dislikes genre tags but, when cornered, she calls Zoo City a muti noir. It’s magical realism, urban fantasy, crime and detective novel all rolled into one, and it’s pretty much unlike anything you’ve ever read.

Beukes has called the novel a love letter to Johannesburg, but the city is more than just a backdrop. Her Jo’burg is dark, alluring and scary, peopled with dodgy characters and their animal familiars. As a former Jo’burg native myself, there’s a lot about it that at once rings true for me, and I almost wish I could un-know the city to be able to fully appreciate the bewitching strangeness of Beukes’ Zoo City.

The novel’s greatest triumph is undoubtedly its richly evocative world, at once hostile and compelling, deadly and seductive. It sucks you in and plants your feet firmly on its grimy city pavements, and despite the danger that awaits you around every corner, you can’t help but run to get there, to find the next macabre treasure.

From its plush, trendy Northern suburbs to the ghettos and sewers where her characters live, this world is bizarre, utterly surreal, and unmistakably Jo’burg. It could be nowhere else in the world, but it’s also every big city on the planet. Beukes has harnessed Fiction’s power to examine society more lucidly than any other genre. Her strange, fictional world is a magic cloak that conceals an unflinching view of inner city slums, and the desperation and alienation of their inhabitants. Though living on top of one another in a densely populated city, the inhabitants of Zoo City are alienated from the larger society, each desperately clawing out an existence in their own private hell. This is strictly background though.

It’s an easy read, and a hell of a ride. If you haven’t read it yet, go out and buy it now. But don’t say we didn’t warn you about the fleas.

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Vianne Venter

Vianne is one of the founding members of Something Wicked magazine. During its life-span as a print magazine Vianne was the head fiction editor as well as providing reviews, articles and even art for most issues.
She works as a freelance entertainment journalist and painter.

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