I used to live in Hillbrow, the section of Jo’burg in which much of Zoo City is set, but I was too young at that time to really remember it. We lived there, though, and I’m told it was a wonderful place to live. Now, though, and for the last couple of decades, at least, Hillbrow has become a complete and utter hell-hole. Stories of old ladies on pension being mugged repeatedly, and here I’m talking six or seven times in as many weeks; stories of entire appliances being thrown from windows during New Year’s Eve celebrations; stories that would make you wince and shake your head and tell the person who’s telling you these stories to just stop.
As a South African living about an hour from Hillbrow, I’m practically inured to Hillbrow-stories – as South Africans we’ve heard it all before, and many, many, many times. It’s like having to drive down a road on which a sewerage-plant is located, every day – at first the stench is crazy-bad and you’re damn sure that it clings to your clothes, but after a while the stench becomes a scent and then even that scent disappears. It is a curse of being human that you become used to everything.
Zoo City is, in some ways, a strident wake-up call. A shout from every rooftop, megaphones included. It’s the kind of book that draws attention to that which needs to be acknowledged and stopped while, at the same time, showing you that there is beauty and magic in everything and that you just need to allow yourself to look.
Zoo City focuses on Zinzi December; she struggles to make ends meet by finding lost things for people and also by dreaming up scams that end up fleecing the unfortunate, naive victim out of their money. It was wonderful getting to know Zinzi, even the not-so-nice and exploitative sides of her personality; sometimes I found myself shaking my head at her stupidity and practically consistent desire to get herself into difficult situations, but I also also learned to admire her for her ability to pick herself up and keep on going, even when everything around her was falling to pieces. I found her to be the kind of character that kept me interested and curious – Lauren lets Zinzi reveal herself, so that as the story progresses you get to know different aspects of her personality; just like what would happen during a long friendship or relationship with someone. I wouldn’t mind reading more tales that star Zinzi – she’s definitely a fresh, bold and tenacious girl! 🙂
But Lauren peoples Zoo City with plenty of other characters, from the star-producer Odi to Zinzi’s boyfriend, Benoit as well as a host of others – twins who are taking the SA music scene by storm, Zinzi’s contacts and friends from a previous life, and plenty of awesome animals – especially Sloth, the best of the lot. 🙂
Lauren also does some incredible world-building in this book, as she did in Moxyland; this is the Jo’burg that everyone knows (at least, those of us who have been there) but it’s also a new, darker Jo’burg that seethes with shadows and tension and yes, even beauty. I got the same feeling from Lauren’s Jo’burg as what I got from Kate Griffin’s London (from A Madness of Angels) – it’s familiar and exotic and beautiful, even though it seethes with danger, cruelty and chaos, and even though I’d probably see my ass if I ever went to Lauren’s Jo’burg, I’d still love to go. 🙂
I’m not going to say anything about the Urban-Fantasyish aspects of Zoo City – discovering that for yourself is one of the great things about this book. Suffice it to say that the magic (and there is magic) is pretty damn awesome and always interesting – the entire culture that has taken hold because of this magic and its effects is easily one of the stars of the novel. 🙂
The novel is also peppered with articles that lend it a refreshing authenticity – everything from supposed psychology of Zoo’s to glimpses of Zoo’s across the world. And no, I don’t mean animals-in-cages Zoo’s. 😉
Zoo City is an excellent example of what South African writers can achieve if they want to write stories set in South Africa; you really can give it our very particular flavour while telling the kind of tale you want to without having to focus on the evils of Apartheid or HIV / AIDS as a story-telling vehicle; one of the many things that Zoo City proves is that South Africa definitely has authors that’ll get you to sit up and take notice (while learning about our country), and Lauren Beukes is one of the authors at the forefront of showing this to the world. I have no doubt that readers in the UK and US will be intoxicated and astonished by this novel and that its characters events will remain with them for some time. That I hope that South African readers embrace this novel doesn’t need to be said – it’s just a matter of time. 🙂
To order your copies of Zoo City, click here (Exclusive Books); Zoo City will be available in the UK in September (from Angry Robot Books), but if you’d like to devour it before then (and who in the UK wouldn’t?!) then check out the info here – Lauren will be launching Zoo City at Forbidden Planet and you’ll be able to get yourself a limited edition hardcover. 🙂 Pre-order your copies here (Amazon UK) and head over to Lauren’s site here and her blog over at Book SA here.