Book Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, is the magic-realism/slipstream/weird fiction novel that you wish you wrote. 

Set in an alternate version of Johannesburg, Zoo City is the story of Zinzi December, a disgraced former journalist (and drug addict), now turning her skill with words to the writing of 419 internet scams, conning wealthy (and non-Internet-savvy) Westerners out of their retirement funds. Zinzi is afflicted by the same curse as others who commit crimes (whether moral or legal) – she is ‘animalled’.

“Traffic in Joburg is like the democratic process. Every time you think it’s going to get moving and take you somewhere, you hit another jam.”

Being ‘animalled’ is a punishment across the world, and the novel talks about prisoners in Australia, about the animalled being executed in China, and of their being ostracised, an analogy for the discrimination that minorities all around the world suffer today.

Being animalled is not solely a punishment, as each animalled person also acquires a psychic power of some description. Zinzi’s is the ability to discover lost things. Although, if you go too far from your animal partner you suffer debilitating panic attacks, headaches, nausea and other symptoms symbolic of drug withdrawal.

“In the forest, they did things to drive us mad. Muti. Drugs. Rape. Killing Games…God is not in the forest. Maybe He is too busy looking after sports teams or worrying about teenagers having sex before marriage. I think they take up a lot of His time.”

So she is enlisted, to try and find the missing member of a brother-sister Afro-pop group for a once-seedy, now-clean producer – before the story leaks that she is missing.

A brilliant twist hangs at the end, too.

It’s a great novel, this one, well worth picking up.

Zoo City is the second Lauren Beukes novel I’ve read as part of my Year of Reading Women (the other being The Shining Girls,which was also brilliant), and I’ve fallen in love with her prose and the brilliant worlds that she creates. She is now one of my favourite authors. Aaaand I can’t wait for the movie!

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