Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City grips readers by the heart and flings them mercilessly into the depths of its magically laced world. A wickedly imaginative novel, Zoo City takes plenty of risks and rides them skillfully through to the reward at the end. Taking place in an alternate world where those guilty of murderous crimes are given an animal familiar by unknown natural forces, the story follows an “animalled” young woman named Zinzi, who lives in the slums of Johannesburg and has a magical talent that helps her find lost things like wedding rings and legal paperwork. Her life seems to finally be looking up when she is hired by one of the biggest names in the music industry to find a missing pop singer. However, she quickly discovers that she’s not the only one seeking the singing star as mysterious disappearances and deaths seem to follow the in young girl’s footsteps.
The novel begins with some uncertainty – a side effect of being thrust into a different kind of world without much more forewarning than what’s found on the novel’s jacket. But this uncertainty is quickly dispelled as Beukes wastes no time fleshing out the world by providing interim chapters that consist of various documentary transcripts, interviews, and scientific analyses of the “zoo phenomenon.” These interim chapters give readers a glimpse into the state of the world at large, while not derailing Zinzi’s story – an effective expositional strategy when dealing with subject material that affects the globe while at the same time focusing on a story that is largely localized to a certain individual. It also helps that the interim chapters are incredibly fascinating; one chapter in particular focuses on an interview with several inmates who have animals and how their lives have changed with the acquisition of their familiars. This chapter, along with others like it, provide a different kind of emotional depth that sets Zoo City apart from other urban fantasy novels like it.
Beukes also strikes an excellent balance with the female protagonist – incredibly strong, yet equally vulnerable: a very human characterization. This brilliant balance is realized to such a degree that I quickly found myself cheering for “Zinzi the multi-layered person,” rather than for “Zinzi the over-sexualized, confused maiden in distress” or “Zinzi the over-compensating, testosterone laden, questionably female” protagonist that many books tend to fill their pages with. I must say, it was refreshing to experience a story in which the themes of internal feminist strength are not presented in an over the top fashion.
With a well-rounded story and a plethora of engaging characters, Zoo City easily makes its mark in the world of urban fantasy. The setting is lush (in a concrete jungle kind of way) and the messages held within the story’s narrative strike home, bringing an acute awareness to the type of life led by those in South Africa’s war torn landscape.