Zoo City is one of those rare novels that instantly adds the author to my 'must read' list. Lauren Beukes packs her sophomore novel with wildly vivid metaphors and prose that pops with a unique mix of desolate beauty. Add the unique pastiche of genre trappings ranging from literary fiction, crime thriller, and magical realism and the resulting novel is a beautiful monster that defies easy classification.
Since the back copy does a poor job of impressing the particulars of Beukes' setting I'll extrapolate a bit. Zinzi is a 'zoo', a criminal mystically saddled with a animal companion as a penance for her crime. She and her sloth are bound until death, and more important her status as a Zoo has removed her from her life of relative privilege and dropped her square into the squalor of
Beukes' first hand knowledge of her setting, Johannesburg South
Beukes shows a deft hand with characters as well. Zinzi December is everything I am not. African, female, criminal, addict, etc, and yet I came to not only understand but identify with her quest to re-imagine herself and to take her life in a completely new direction. With all the talk about writing strong female characters that is bandied about the internet, one could easily point to Zinzi as an example of what the genre needs. Zinzi December is complicated, conflicted, capable, cunning, foolish, flawed, and fierce. She is not a collection of 'kick ass female' archetypes, and Beukes never tries to turn her into action hero with breasts. And
Beukes brings her journalistic chops to the forefront in the form of chapters that mine background information from newspaper and magazine articles, emails, and even YouTube videos and their comments. These asides while disconnecting the reader from the narrative voice of Zinzi's point of view, really do add a level of realism and richness to the novel that far outweighs the possible inconvenience to the reader.
They say, and rightly so, that the destination is far less important than the journey one takes to arrive.
While Beukes layers more than a little social commentary into the narrative but it never takes away from the novel or preaches. These elements are part and parcel to the culture of Beukes imagined Jo-burg and are as ever present as the drug dealers and animalled prostitutes. They are setting more than story, with Zinzi’s personal journey to steer her life in a new direction against a society that is determined to keep her in a neatly zoo-labeled box.